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Bridgeport councilman allowed to re-open liquor store

March 26, 2019

BRIDGEPORT — More than three years after his new North End liquor store was forced to close, City Councilman Michael DeFilippo has the city’s OK to try again.

The Planning and Zoning Commission on Monday approved DeFilippo’s application to re-open Vitro’s at 1044 Brooklawn Ave.

“I’m done waiting. It’s crazy,” DeFilippo said in an interview. “This is ‘go time.’”

Vitro’s opponents, however, are not done fighting. A coalition of competing package stores is appealing in court the recently passed, re-written liquor regulations the Planning and Zoning Commission used to review and approve DeFilippo’s proposal.

And their attorney, Joel Green, also appeared to lay the ground work Monday for a lawsuit against the vote on Vitro’s, should the liquor rules be upheld.

Still, DeFilippo’s attorney, Charles Willinger, said his client will move forward re-launching his small business.

“There’s risk,” Willinger admitted, but added he believes the city’s decisions “will withstand any appeal.”

When DeFilippo first opened his package store in 2015, he needed a zoning variance because the site, in a small strip mall, was within 1,500 feet of houses of worship and a daycare.

DeFilippo was elected to the council last year. But he tended bar at Democratic Town Chairman Mario Testa’s pizza restaurant across the street from Vitro’s. So his seemingly mundane zoning application in 2015 drew support not just from Testa, but an ex-mayor, a City Council president and other council members.

But Superior Court Judge Dale Radcliffe was not swayed, and in early 2016 rejected the variance to open Vitro’s. So Willinger began a controversial push to change the 1,500-foot-rule so his client would not need a zoning variance.

That effort received support from Planning Director Lynn Haig in 2017. Haig endorsed a 750-foot-rule along with new criteria that zoning officials could use to better screen liquor store applications, like evaluating the impact on property values and future development.

Despite opposition from education officials and some elected officials, the Planning and Zoning Commission voted for Haig’s new regulations last summer and replaced the previously required zoning variance with a “certificate of approval of location.”

Green filed a legal appeal, claiming Haig had no standing to submit regulation changes to zoning officials.

So last month Zoning Commission members, in an effort to nullify Green’s lawsuit, re-submitted the new liquor store rules to themselves and voted on them. And Green promptly filed another appeal, which is pending.

‘For my family’

Both Willinger and Green appeared before the Zoning Commission at its Monday meeting.

“Mike DeFilippo is young. He lives in Bridgeport — has all his life. And he wants to do business in Bridgeport,” Willinger testified. “The surrounding area is already fully developed. There is nothing we’re doing that would impair future development.”

Willinger said the small strip mall housing his client’s business was built over 60 years ago and is “part of the neighborhood.”

Green questioned the need for another package store in the city, arguing there is a limited amount of business. The state issues liquor permits based on population, and Bridgeport’s allowance is 57. There are currently 17 state permits available — about the same number as when DeFilippo first sought to open Vitro’s in 2015.

“All we’re doing ... is taking the pie and putting more slices in, but the pie stays the same size,” Green said. “You’re actually hurting small businesses in Bridgeport.”

Green also said that Willinger offered no solid evidence, only his own opinion, about Vitro’s impact.

“He’s not an engineer or appraiser,” Green said.

Willinger did submit two signed letters from neighbors who support DeFilippo: Frank Macari, who owns Lil’ Blessings Daycare, and Deacon Don Foust of St. Margaret Shrine.

When Radcliffe ruled against DeFilippo three years ago, the judge criticized “the parade of preening politicians endorsing this application.” The only politician to show up Monday was North End Councilwoman AmyMarie Vizzo-Paniccia, who urged zoning officials to support DeFilippo and not base their decisions on his political associates.

“We need more small businesses,” she said.

Zoning Commission members quickly approved Vitro’s certificate of location. Chairman Mel Riley noted that “no one was here from the general public” to oppose the application and said the commission does not make decisions based on competition.

Afterward, DeFilippo said in an interview that Vitro’s was the name of a store his grandfather ran in the city.

“The store’s not for me,” he said. “It’s for my family.”

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