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Handlebar Cafe's TV makeover creates permit problem in Stonington

By Joe Wojtas

Publication: The Day

Published May 08. 2013 4:00AM

Stonington - Planning and Zoning Commission member John Prue accused the town Tuesday night of employing a double standard by allowing the Handlebar Cafe to put up a new sign as part of its television show makeover without first getting a permit.

"Once again we have a business owner in town coming in on the back side and trying to clean up a mess. It's not fair to the other businesses," he said.

Meanwhile, Prue said other businesses are required to obtain a permit before they can put up a new sign, such as Olde Mistick Village Cinema did Tuesday night.

But First Selectman Ed Haberek, who is the town's acting Director of Planning, told the commission the Handlebar was a unique situation because the point of the Spike TV show "Bar Rescue" is to surprise the public with the makeover.

He said there were contractual requirements between the show and bar owner Elizabeth Mitchell regarding the secrecy of the changes.

"But that shouldn't usurp local zoning," said commission member Ben Tamsky.

Town Planner Keith Brynes said that no violation has yet been issued to the 210 S. Broad St. bar.

As part of the makeover, "Bar Rescue" painted a new, large mural on the side of Handlebar Cafe and erected a pair of large handlebars on an overhang over the front entrance. Both changes require a sign and building permit from the town.

Haberek said he expects the handlebars to be taken down and the name of the bar covered over on the mural. He said the bar is putting together an application for the mural/sign.

Prue pressed Haberek, who attended the unveiling last week, when he learned about the sign and handlebars. Haberek said he learned about them at the unveiling. He said the town told the show there were certain things it could not do, such as erect a roof sign.

Haberek, who became frustrated with the commission's questioning, said the town was just trying to help the television show, which brought good publicity to the town.

"Maybe the best thing now is for TV shows not to come to town," he said.

Haberek said he is now hearing from people that the town is trying to drive business out of town by taking actions such as this.

A team from the Spike TV show worked for five days to renovate the bar. The show and its host, Jon Taffer, help drinking establishments "transform themselves into vibrant profitable businesses."

j.wojtas@theday.com

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