Sometime before the end of the year, the Board of Selectmen, and voters in Madison will discuss and, perhaps, decide the fate of the town-owned Grassy Strip next to the Madison Beach Hotel.
The stretch of grassy land, carefully manicured by Madison Beach Hotel, is currently the subject of a temporary reciprocal license agreement between the hotel and the town. The license agreement allowed the hotel, during this past summer, to host lucrative weddings and other events on the land, which is right outside of the hotel facing a scenic stretch of sand dunes and town-owned beach on Long Island Sound. The hotel also used the Grassy Strip to host free family movie nights and free concerts--open to neighbors, hotel guests, and anyone else who was interested--featuring internationally known rock starts and artists, along with local business people and artisans who were selling their wares.
The movies and concerts drew people from far and near, and were well loved by some of the hotel's nearby neighbors.
Not so much.
Three neighbors complain to the town, then to the police
Three of those neighbors--who were disturbed by the noise, the large number of people attending, and the flashing red, white and blue lighting--complained to town officials, who said the temporary agreement created some grey areas when it came to enforcing the Zoning Board of Appeals variance under which the hotel operates.
The town decided for the time being not to enforce some of the specific terms of the variance, including those relating to noise, numbers and lights, upon the advice of the town attorney. Town officials said the concerts were coming to an end for the season adding that the temporary agreement would soon be put to voters.
So, those three neighbors, further armed with a video documented the noise, large number of people and lights, went to the police to make a complaint. As it turned out, the video also showed a hotel employee selling beer on the Grassy Strip during a free concert by British rock band The Fixx, attended by about 500 people, went to the police. After viewing the video, the Madison Police Department filed a complaint with the state Liquor Control Commission, "alleging a violation of the hotel's permit to serve alcoholic beverages," the case/incident report says.
Not clear when liquor control commission decision will be made
It is not clear whether the liquor control complaint will be resolved before the town's Board of Selectmen next takes up the matter of the temporary license agreement and the future of the Grassy Strip. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Consumer Protection, of which the liquor control commission is a part, said she was not sure how long it might take for the commission to rule on it. The Board of Selectmen have not said when they will take up the issue of the Grassy Strip again, although they have said they would like a permanent solution by the end of the year.
The complaint to the liquor control commission is the most significant action taken by the town against the hotel since it was re-opened in the spring. But it is not the only complaint or concern expressed about the hotel. Here is a list of some of those concerns and complaints to town officials and local police since Madison Beach Hotel re-opened last spring after being rebuilt from the ground up:
- The hotel built a wall near the beach that may qualify as a flood control and erosion control structure, without the requisite approvals. Town officials say it could require a variance and a modification of the site plan approval. That would now be an "after the fact" variance and it may require approval from the state as well.
- The hotel, on what appears to be a former patch of wetlands that had been filled on Parker Avenue, was using private property earlier this summer to park employee cars. The employees drove down the narrow Parker Avenue, through a residential neighborhood, then walked up to the hotel in their uniforms, their name badges flashing in the sun. Town officials asked the hotel to stop.
- A hotel official who also is a family member started building a bocce court next to the hotel on private property owned by the Duques family, which also owns the hotel. This was started without the appropriate permits. The town's zoning officer asked them to stop or face the possibility of a cease and desist order. The space that was excavated for bocce court is now filled with gravel.
- After the hotel was built, and was up and running, town resident Walter Lippmann complained to town officials that there were no handicapped parking signs, as required, in the parking lot. After Lippmann's complaint, the town's building official met with hotel officials and the signs were replaced. The hotel said it was an inadvertent oversight.
- The hotel, while providing free valet parking and shuttle service to free hotel events such as concerts, also, during its grand opening celebration, cordoned off town-owned parking spaces next to the hotel for private use of hotel patrons. First Selectman Fillmore McPherson said he would talk with the hotel and ask them not to do it again.
- A series of free concerts, featuring internationally prominent and popular musicians, which drew attendees from all over the shoreline, also featured noise and multi-colored lights. While the concerts were beloved by many, they also drew the ire of some town residents who complained to town officials about the noise, lights, and large number of attendees. These residents also filed a complaint with the police.
- Town police referred the hotel to the state Liquor Control Commission after Madison resident Emile Geisenheimer, a former police commissioner in town, complained about liquor being served during a free special event concert on the town-owned Grassy Strip, which is currently being leased to the hotel. The hotel said they have followed all applicable rules relating to serving liquor and the complaint has not yet been adjudicated by the state.
- Police said in the case/incident report that supported the referral to the liquor control commission that they investigated the possibility of a breach of peace complaint, discussing it with the state attorney's office. The police said they did not plan to pursue a breach of peace arrest at this time, but that they might reopen that possibility in the future.
- Town resident Walter Lippmann also complained about excessive water runoff from the roof of the hotel to across the street, across a town-owned beach and into Long Island Sound. After he complained to the Board of Selectmen, town officials met with hotel officials to seek a remedy for the problem.
- Neighbor residents have expressed concern about what appears to be the hotel's continued use of private property next to the hotel, owned by the Duques family, as a parking lot for the hotel. When complaints to the town did not resolve the issue, the residents called police the next time it happened. A "cute as a button" police officer responded promptly and had the cars cleared, a neighborhood resident said.
- Storage pods were also parked on the Duques-owned private property in the Parker Avenue/Parker Lane residential neighborhood. The pods appeared to be full of office furniture and office equipment that had been used by the hotel, which during re-construction of the hotel and for part of the summer was using one of the private homes as an office, even though it was a residential property. After neighborhood residents expressed concern about the pods on residential property, the pods were removed a few days later.
- Lippmann also takes issue with the fact that the deal with the Madison Beach Hotel on the Grassy Strip was a private deal offered only to the hotel. He said he and some other town residents were interested in bidding for the opportunity to set up a concession there, but were told they could not. Town officials say the deal with the hotel was a unique one, since it allows the town to take possession of and use a beach owned by the Duques family next to the town-owned West Wharf Beach across the street from the hotel. The Duques beach, now formally being used by town residents as part of the Grassy Strip temporary license agreement, is used as a wading beach by town youngsters.
"Are they out of here?"
Neighborhood residents say they are now eyeing the hotel beach recliners and umbrellas which appear to sometimes be set up in front of one of the two private residential Duques-owned houses on Parker Lane, next to the hotel. Are they for hotel visitors or visitors to the houses or members of the Duques family? Is it an encroachment, another "oversight," or is it just a bunch of chairs and umbrellas that can be used by anyone, including friends and neighbors?
Some neighborhood residents said they are also made nervous by news that the Duques family may be renting out their longtime home as an academic rental. "Does that mean they are out of here?" one asked.
The re-opening of the hotel--along with the deal this summer relating to the Grassy Strip, combined with the private ownership by the Duques family of two homes on Parker Lane next to the hotel--has created complications when it comes to zoning and enforcement, town officials say.
Following complaints, town says there are questions about enforcement
When complaints come up, so do questions, they tell people who have called town hall to complain. Is it hotel property? It is town property? Is it private property? Is it town property being used by the hotel? Is it private property being used by a commercial entity? Does the ZBA variance apply? Does the Grassy Strip agreement apply? Of two liquor licenses that the hotel holds, which applies in any given circumstance and to which property?
The town's zoning laws, posted on the town's website, say explicitly that "no non-conforming use shall be extended or expanded." They also say that "no land, building, or premises or parts thereof shall be used in any manner which shall create any objectionable noise, smell, smoke, light ... "
Further, the Zoning Board of Appeals Certificate of Decision Variance, dated November 5, 2008, says that the ZBA decision provides "a comprehensive means to defining and controlling the existing commercial use in a residential neighborhood."
Operating with ZBA variance, and lease agreement
It also says that "music amplification or reproduction equipment shall not be operated in such a manner that is plainly audible at a distance of 50 feet in any direction from the property." It also says "tented and outdoor functions shall not exceed 120 guests in total, which number shall be included in the 346 maximum restaurant/banquet occupancy" and that tented and outdoor functions "shall not utilize exterior lighting other than the lighting shown on approved site lans, with the exception that there may be interior tent lights."
Town officials say the problem with enforcing those rules and regulations is that the hotel was operating with both the ZBA variance for the hotel/restaurant, and with a lease agreement for the Grassy Strip.
The license agreement says the "Grassy Area shall retain its designation as a public park under the jurisdiction of the Department ... " and it also says "Nothing in this Agreement shall be construed as authorizing or granting rights to MBH or Ventures to use their respective properties in a manner that violates any law, regulation, ordinance, permit or government approval."
What sort of accommodations should be made to town's largest employer?
Town officials have said both privately and publicly, that they also grapple with this question: What kind of accommodations should be made and what kind of leeway should be given, if any, to the town's largest employer which is also one of the town's five largest taxpayers?
Town officials say they attempted to address the issues as they've come up and that hotel officials are generally cooperative and agreeable about responding to the complaints after the fact.
But town resident Walter Lippmann, who frequents town meetings and is quick to both praise and criticize depending on the issue, says the response of the town has been a little too late and not nearly in proportion to the number and significance of the complaints being levied.
"Something is rotten in the town of Madison"
"Something is rotten in the town of Madison," said Lippmann, a former police officer who says he is particularly disturbed by what he says is the town's reluctance to enforce its own rules and regulations. "We're a nation of laws. If you want to violate the law, we have a name for that. We call them criminals. We all have to go by the laws, whether they are zoning laws or criminal laws."
Lippmann said town officials have not responded in a timely manner to a Freedom of Information request relating to the hotel, and that they did not take his proposal to set up a business on the Grassy Strip seriously. He added he is worried that what appears to be a cozy relationship between the town and the hotel could be more than just a simple matter of the town working hard to accommodate its largest employer and one of its largest taxpayers.
Madison Beach & Recreation Chairman Tom Banisch, who was instrumental in working out the details that created the temporary licensing agreement between the town and hotel, a deal that brought revenue into the town's coffers and provided residents with additional beach frontage, says Lippmann has publicly accused him of more than having a cozy relationship.
"Walter is telling people at the coffee shop that I am on the take"
"Walter is telling people at the [Madison] Coffee Shop that I am on the take from the hotel," he said. "He is willing to say anything to distract people on this issue. There is something weird about someone who hates the hotel this violently."
Banisch added that Lippmann's proposal to set up a business on the Grassy Strip was not a serious one and that he never submitted a serious bid. "That's a red herring. He's just trying to be a spoiler. The only entity that can use that property is the hotel. They have a haven in case of storms. In addition, I think what they have done this year utilizing the Grassy Strip as a venue was a great idea, and a lot of people in town enjoyed it."
Banisch said he is in favor of, and plans to recommend, the town taking the town-hotel deal to a public hearing, and then to a referendum.
"We want to make the arrangement permanent"
"We want to make the arrangement permanent," he said.
First Selectman Fillmore McPherson said he agrees with that. He also said he is interested to hear the outcome of the Madison Police Department's referral to the liquor control commission. He said the temporary license agreement between the town and hotel makes no prohibition against the sale of alcohol on the Grassy Strip.
"There is certainly no prohibition (as Emile claims) but, on the opposite side, there is a specific allowance (under banquet facilities) of bars, which certainly implies that alcohol is allowed," he said.
"This is an area that needs a final resolution"
Selectman Joe MacDougald said he is looking forward to having a final resolution between the town and the hotel when it comes to the Grassy Strip.
"I am personally less interested in extending the current arrangement for anything other than a limited time span, just long enough to develop a final solution to bring to the voters of Madison," he said. "This is an area that needs a final resolution presented to the voters rather than interim agreements."
Selectman Al Goldberg agreed that a permanent resolution should be pursued.
"I believe that Town Government should continue to pursue development of an arrangement for realigning the respective ownership of the parcels at Middle Beach," Goldberg said. "Our Town Charter identifies the Board of Selectmen as the body which conducts such negotiations, and the Town Meeting is identified as the body which must approve any final arrangement. Since the BOS does not currently have a proposal in front of it, there is nothing to evaluate at this time."
A permanent solution should be determined by town voters, Walker says
Selectman Joan Walker said this is something that should be determined by the voters.
"I believe that the current arrangement with the Madison Beach Hotel was for one year, with the understanding that both sides would work towards a permanent solution. I have not seen any language on the permanent solution, so I can’t comment on that," she said. "But I will say that any permanent solution will go before the public for approval, otherwise I will not vote to approve it."
Selectman Joan Stadterman also is in favor of a permanent resolution being made in a timely manner.
"The hotel is here to stay"
"I want to see a permanent solution to the issue. I want a 'swap' so that we can get out of the year-to-year contract idea," she said.
"The hotel is here to stay," Stadterman added. "They are the second largest tax payer and as such they have rights too. I really feel that a lot of the anger is left-over resentment that the new hotel is not the same as the old. In any new construction there is a 'break-in' period that I feel we are going through this now. I do not feel that Ric Duques was given any special consideration as he was building, it is just that everything that has gone wrong is magnified due to the size and scope of the project. I think it is time for the town's people embrace this new and important part of Madison. If we are reasonable, any problem can be worked out equitably."
Lippmann said he too is in favor of an equitable solution, but he added that as the town and town voters determine the fate of the Grassy Strip, he wants to make sure the hotel abides by all relevant rules and regulations in this case. He says Madison Beach Hotel should be required to abide by rules, regulations, and laws, just like other businesses and individuals in town.
Lippmann seeking meeting with Zoning Board of Appeals to address repeated complaints and warnings
He said one of his next steps will be to seek a meeting with the town's Zoning Board of Appeals to address the repeated complaints and warnings to the hotel.
Lippmann said he is confident that John DeLaura, the town's zoning enforcement officer, has properly documented the complaints as they have come in and that the documentation will show a repeated pattern of violations.
"He's aware of what the ... is going on," Lippmann said. "And I haven't met a single person who has said to me, 'you're absolutely wrong, Madison Beach Hotel is a great addition.' Everybody says, 'keep 'em honest.' I'm getting a tremendous amount of encouragement. I'm speaking out about what I feel is a very unhealthy relationship. I don't know why the town is turning a blind eye to this and why they let the hotel do whatever they want to do. We're a nation of laws. You may not agree with them, but you have to go along with them."
Editor's Note: This story was updated Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012 to include additional information about the ZBA variance and the lease agreement referenced in the story.