By Tommy Smigiel
I need to apologize to those who were getting used to following my weekly City Council updates. Unfortunately, I was slammed with multiple events (political and personal) that left no time for me to even write a quick update. Don’t worry, you didn’t miss much the last two weeks and if there was anything interesting happening at City Hall, I would have given up an hour of sleep to make sure you knew what was going on. Tuesday’s meeting is the last “day” meeting before moving to our new schedule in May.
The big story with City Council this week is about restaurants in Ocean View applying for special exceptions to sell alcohol past 12:00am. For those not familiar with the history of Ocean View, since the early 1990′s there has been a policy that new restaurants could not sell alcohol past 11:00pm on weekdays, and 12:00am on the weekends. This policy also extended beyond Ocean View into the Little Creek Road corridor and parts of Bayview. In almost all other Norfolk locations, restaurants or bars can go until 2:00am, seven days a week. The policy was enacted in large part because of the shady bars and strip clubs that were giving Ocean View a bad image. The rule was also used if any established restaurant or bar wanted to expand or make other changes to their application. Thus, this requirement shut down almost every questionable establishment in Ocean View.
A few months ago, I received email requests to meet with the owners of Mojo Bones and Mona Lisa Pizza. Both owners were interested in applying for a special exception to sell alcohol until 1:00am, seven days a week. I spoke with both owners and explained to them that I was personally not in support of their request. However, I explained that if they could get the Civic Leagues in Ocean View to support them, I would listen to what the community wanted. For those that know me well, this is how I have operated since elected to office. I try to listen and get as much citizen input as possible before making a decision on big issues such as this. The owners spent the next several months meeting with Civic Leagues in Ocean View, and to my surprise they received overwhelming support from the majority of the Civic Leagues. Five of six civic leagues voted in favor of their requests. In addition two more civic organizations and the Ocean View Business Association also endorsed their plan.
For these restaurant owners to get this much support, most would think they would have no problem getting this through Norfolk’s Planning Commission. Not so fast. Although no one spoke against their applications, with a 3-3 vote, the Planning Commission sent a recommendation of “no” to City Council. Obviously, there was some politics behind the vote.
There was some debate at last week’s City Council Informal session, and at one point got heated as we discussed the inconsistencies of how the city grants this exception. This was highlighted in a Virginian-Pilot article today. Some of my colleagues on council are just not willing, even with overwhelming community support, to go against this twenty year policy. Even the City Manager’s Office recognized the lack of consistency and recommended to delay this vote until after they brought forward new procedures on granting special exceptions in May. That option wasn’t accepted.
I have to laugh a little at all of this. There is a group of people in Norfolk that still can’t get over the fact that I won the election last May. They honestly believe I have some sort of personal stake in this, which I don’t. I guess they think I will be upset if this doesn’t pass Tuesday. I won’t be. This same group circulated a letter around East Beach this morning calling themselves “Concerned Citizens for Ward 5,” exposing some of the fire marshal citations issued on one of the establishments. Not only did the “Concerned Citizens” group illegally put the flyers on and in mailboxes, they also left the owner’s personal information, including his driver’s license
social security number on attached documents. They also falsely said the applicant was asking for a special exception until 2:00am. That’s just plain wrong, and hopefully there will be some legal ramifications for their actions.
In the end, most of this won’t matter
because I believe the owners are withdrawing their applications per my recommendation. As explained to them, I don’t know if it would be worth them receiving a 7-1 or 6-2 vote against their application on Tuesday, especially if the City Manger’s Office is developing a new policy. And yes, one of those votes in favor would have been mine. As promised, I would have listened and voted as the community wished.
UPDATE: The Clerk’s office received requests from both Mojo Bones and Mona Lisa Pizza to withdraw their items, numbered R-1 and R-16 respectively, from tomorrow’s council meeting agenda.