A second inquiry by the New Hope Zoning Hearing Board over the fate of the River Cat Café convened on March 14, but after over three hours, no decision was reached. A third hearing was scheduled for April 11.
The first meeting, held on Jan. 15, was the result of the café’s efforts to seek approval for practices that violated zoning ordinances. The case is particularly significant given that the business owner is Alison Kingsley, a member of the borough council who stepped down from her office as borough president in the wake of the violations.
Paul Cohen, the attorney representing the River Cat Café, entered documentary evidence that included plans from New Hope Zoning
Officer Jim Ennis, which accompanied the permit, a copy of the original application and a copy of the transcript from the original hearing more than four years ago on Feb. 5, 2015.
Cohen’s first witness, New Jersey-based architect Moira McClintock, addressed a question about disparity between actual seating and that in the application. She stated that an area of 405 square feet was allocated for seating. The current application depicts increased seating of 847.3 square feet, comprising 54 of 57 allowed seating spaces.
McClintock testified that there was no significant impact of food preparation, one of the items in the original complaint, upon the surrounding area. Various ventless recirculating hoods with carbon filtration systems precluded cooking fumes from venting to the outside, said McClintock.
When asked by Cohen if she would consider the cafe compatible with its surrounding neighborhood, she responded affirmatively, adding that Moo, a restaurant serving burgers, shakes and fries, was within 50 feet of the site and several other restaurants were just down the street.
McClintock said it was the first property outside the Village Commercial district. Setback allowed outdoor seating without encroaching on the sidewalk and parking in the back was more compatible for restaurant than retail use. She added that a grab-and-go place would have a more negative impact on traffic and parking.
Stephen Burkard, a licensed tax attorney and Lambertville, N.J., restaurant owner, also testified for Kingsley who was his client during the business transactions. He stated that the establishment is currently comprised of 3,500 clients per month, adding that if limited to only prepared foods, that volume would need to increase to 15,000.
Burkard added that prepared foods have lower markup and would result in less employment. He also maintained that prepared foods would increase trash and plastic waste. The local population is benefited from the parking lot, and in off hours, the River Cat is becoming a neighborhood meeting place, Burkard said.
George Fernandez, who filed the original complaint against the River Cat Café at a borough council meeting last October, also spoke before the hearing board. Fernandez owns an apartment building across from the café, and his complaint resulted in the enforcement notices against the café in November, including ordinance violations for preparing food, dumpster placement, outdoor dining setback, retail sales and off-street parking calculations.
While Fernandez focused his arguments primarily over violation of food preparation ordinances, John and Peter’s Place co-owner Mike Wieners addressed the board on procedure. He questioned why business model projections and viability were not done before the café opened its doors.
Burkard responded that a complete analysis was done a few months prior to agreement signing last spring. Cohen interjected, adding, “It was always her intention to seek approval. We’ve acknowledged that the process was not potentially ideal.”
Wieners made a closing statement that “the methodologies used and the chronology that followed” suggested to him “a premeditated means to open a business that would operate outside the confines of approvals.”
He questioned the “dangerous precedent” set by such “nefarious business dealings within the borough,” including “after-the-fact approvals” for some while small business owners who follow the rules and jump through the hoops deal with council members “that say one thing and do the other.”
“That’s a very slippery slope,” Wieners said.