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Groton says restaurant, public events at Spicer Mansion violate zoning

August 11, 2018

I met with the Groton zoning enforcement officer Friday morning to better understand the zoning violations against Spicer Mansion cited in a letter sent Thursday to the owner of the boutique Mystic hotel.

The hotel, located in a residential zone, has a special permit for only eight guest rooms and may serve food and liquor and provide amenities to only those overnight guests, according to the town.

And yet, Zoning Enforcement Officer Tom Zanarini said in his Aug. 9 Notice of Violation letter, Spicer Mansion has been advertising and promoting, on its website, on Facebook and in news releases, a range of public events, including clambakes, outdoor dinners and movie nights, as well as taking reservations for its restaurant.

Zanarini also told me the hotel can host weddings only for relatives of the owners, like any property owner in a residential neighborhood, and cannot be rented out as an event venue.

So imagine my surprise when I arrived at the hotel Friday morning, looking for a comment from owner Brian Gates, to find him in the lobby, pitching the hotel as a wedding venue to a group of visitors.

Less than a half-hour had passed since my conversation with the zoning officer about the lack of zoning permission for the mansion to be rented out for weddings. I can’t imagine the heartbreak of booking a date for such an important occasion, making plans and then having the rug pulled out from under you down the road, if the place is shut down.

When I had a chance to ask Gates, after his meeting with customers ended, about the zoning violation letter and its 30-day deadline, he told me that’s his comment, that he has 30 days to respond.

The violation letter, which Gates told me Friday he has received, advises him he has 30 days to correct the violations or file an appeal with the Zoning Board of Appeals. Failure to correct the violations or appeal the order could result in a lawsuit seeking fines, penalties and court costs, the letter says.

The letter last week was hardly the first warning to Gates from the town, which has been fielding complaints from neighbors in the historic neighborhood. In fact, it was a neighbor who first told me about the violation letter.

As long ago as February 2016, the town’s assistant director of planning & development wrote to Gates to “be very clear” that uses of the building for amenities like a 40-seat restaurant would require additional zoning approvals.

“As you are aware, this property was converted from a non-conforming use, an apartment building, to another non-conforming use, a hotel/motel,  by special permit and was approved, in part because ... the proposal does not increase intensity of the use on site,” the letter said.

The letter was copied to an executive of Ocean House Management, which runs the Weekapaug Inn, the Watch Hill Inn and Ocean House in Westerly. Spicer Mansion’s affiliation with Ocean House Management, which ran Spicer Mansion for much of its first year in service, ended in the spring of 2017, Gates told The Day at the time.

Gates also was warned in a January 2017 letter from Mystic Fire District Fire Marshal Frank Hilbert that use of the building for anything other than a bed and breakfast is a violation of the Connecticut state fire code.

The letter tells him to “cease operating a hotel and restaurant.”

Hilbert told me Friday that fire code violations cited in the 2017 letter have been corrected and that he took the owner at his word when he responded that the building is being used as a bed and breakfast and not as a hotel and restaurant.

The town also has questioned whether the provision of zoning approval that requires the owner to live in an owner’s suite in the building is being met and uses a street in Stonington as Gates’ address.

Gates signed a notarized affidavit with the town in 2016 in which he says he understands the owner must live on site and that “any additional commercial or public use of the property besides renting eight hotel/motel rooms” would require additional approvals.

A private bar, which the mansion calls a speakeasy, in the basement for people who pay a membership fee also is cited in the zoning violation letter as a nonconforming “enlargement, extension or alteration” of the building.

The fire marshal said he is about to cite the owner for inadequate egress for the basement speakeasy. He said he became aware of the speakeasy for the first time on a recent reinspection of the building.

The speakeasy, at least, is aptly named.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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