Update includes full decision. When it comes to Bridgeport politics, Superior Court Judge Dale Radcliffe has a healthy dose of skepticism and he did not hold back in a “fix was in” decision Wednesday castigating political influence that approved an application for a package store opponents argued violated state law including former Republican State Senator Rob Russo, the lone dissenter on the Zoning Board of Appeals decision. Radcliffe ruled “Because the variances granted by the Bridgeport Zoning Board of Appeals are a condition precedent to the lawful operation of a package store at 1044 Brooklawn Avenue, Bridgeport, the Defendant, Michael DeFillipo, is ordered to immediately cease and desist from the use of any portion of 1044 Brooklawn Avenue, as a package store.”
Just inside the Bridgeport line, across the street from a Fairfield restaurant owned by Democratic Town Chair Mario Testa, a steady stream of city politicians lobbied the ZBA to approve the package store application in the spring. The applicant hired Bridgeport land use guru Chuck Willinger to make the presentation to the ZBA. Willinger argued that a hardship was present because the 1,500 foot rule prevents the building from being used for the desired purpose. He also claimed hardship based on the “need for this type of use.”
Assistant City Attorney Edmund Schmidt told the ZBA the facts as presented failed to establish a legitimate hardship, according to Radcliffe.
After the approval Russo, an attorney, told the CT Post the decision would be overturned in court. Russo, turns out, was prescient about a court challenge brought by lawyer Joel Green on behalf of a Fairfield liquor store.
“The applicant seems like a good guy,” said Russo. Just the sort of businessman we want in Bridgeport. (But) I don’t see the point of granting somebody something that is just going to cost him tens of thousands of dollars (in legal fees) to find out that it’s no good.”
In his decision Radliffe cited the zoning regulations of the city:
“Package Store: No use for which a package store permit is required under Chapter 545, Section 30-1 through 30-115 of the Connecticut General Statutes, may be located so that an entrance to such use is within a 1,500 foot radius of a Lot containing a house of worship, school, hospital, commercial day care center, or any other use requiring an all-alcohol liquor package store permit.”
But here’s where Radcliffe’s decision blowtorches the political establishment. He highlights political support from Testa who wrote that he knew DeFillipo for more than 10 years “as an employee and a friend.”
Radcliffe referred to letters of support submitted by political leaders including City Council President Tom McCarthy and former Mayor John Fabrizi. Other supporters argued the lot shall be improved resulting in more activity and pedestrian safety.
Radcliffe, a former Republican state legislator, was not impressed by the political intrusion.
“While all citizens have a right to be heard during a public hearing conducted by a municipal land use body, the parade of preening politicians endorsing this application, orchestrated on April 14, 2015, may have the unintended consequence of convincing the already cynical that “the fix was in” even if the record does not conclusively establish that finding.
This is particularly true, where the Supplemental Record reveals that a super majority of the Zoning Board of Appeals cavalierly disregarded the advice of the experienced and knowledgable land use attorney who was present to provide legal advice.
Adopting a “no harm, no foul” approach to variance applications, disservices the public. It also fuels the perception, too common in municipal government, that political machinations and the politics of personality, are sufficient to trump the rule of law.
The judge’s ruling ordered DeFillipo “to immediately cease and desist from the use of any potion of 1044 Brooklawn Avenue, as a package store.”
See Judge Radcliffe’s decision here.