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River Cat Cafe zoning hearing begins in New Hope


The New Hope Zoning Hearing Board determined that another meeting will be required to decide the fate of borough council member and former president Alison Kingsley’s River Cat Café.

The Jan. 10 meeting in a packed borough hall established the arguments over zoning violations of the café located at 142 S. Main St.

The hearing was conducted by attorney Thomas Panzer, and borough solicitor T.J. Walsh began the proceedings by presenting evidence related to the zoning enforcement action taken on Nov. 7.

Walsh stated that in the complaint, the setback violation was remedied by the removal of concrete pads into a buffer zone originally placed to support dumpsters. He said off-street parking was also being reviewed and seating setback was also resolved, leaving two items on the table for discussion involving food preparation and retail accessory sales.

Borough zoning officer James Ennis was Walsh’s only witness.

In November 2015, property owner Edward Short submitted a zoning permit application for 142 S. Main St., for use as a coffee shop with 18 off-street parking spots proposed.

A building permit was approved for the installation of an oven in 2016 and a second oven with a ventless exhaust fan in 2018. In August 2018, a complaint about illegally-placed dumpsters and unapproved food preparation by neighbor George Fernandez, who owns and manages the apartment building across the street from the café, was “being rectified,” said Ennis.

Ennis said he conducted a two-month investigation in which he “walked by” the property but did not enter it. He added that online research comprised a significant portion of his inquiry. Ennis stated that the violations he discovered left little choice but to proceed with enforcement notices.

Ennis added that while the definition of allowed food required “a little interpretation,” the online menu at River Cat Café listed full breakfast and lunch fare that he determined “exceeded the liberal interpretation” and constituted a violation of the ordinance prohibiting the preparation of food.

Attorney Paul Cohen, representing the interests of the River Cat Café, queried Ennis about retail sales of nonfood products ancillary to the business. Zoning for the café prohibits primary retail sales not incidental to the café. Cohen stated that all sales were limited to goods from local artists, but Ennis responded that he did not know whether local artistry unrelated to restaurant branding would be considered incidental retail.

Cohen also argued that the preparation of food was not defined in the zoning ordinance, questioning where the line would be drawn from unpackaging a muffin to toasting and buttering it. He added that installation of the ovens via approved building permits posed a question of incompatibility between the building permit approvals and zoning restrictions in that building.

Zoning hearing board member Karen Grossman discussed the scope and frequency of food inspections by Bucks County Department of Health and queried how its risk-based enforcement would be handled in this situation.

Cohen stated that the response to violations would be phrased in a variance request, stating that the enforcement of unauthorized retail sales was in error since incidental sales should be permitted. He also argued that the preparation of food was unenforceable since the definition was vague and ambiguous, further obfuscated by the approval of permits allowing installation of cooking equipment.

Cohen’s two witnesses, Short and Kingsley, were then questioned. Short stated that he owned the property since 1969, purchasing it for its value as a riverside lot with parking and as the first commercial structure encountered by traffic moving up River Road from the south.

He said the building was in need of “big-time repairs” that were completed in 2016. He recalled no condition prohibiting food preparation at that time and expressed his expectation that the property would be used as a “low-key café.” The renovations included the installation of a kitchen and bathrooms, which he maintained met architectural code.

Short said prospective tenants approached him about using the facility as a restaurant but price disagreements kept the property vacant.

Kingsley said she became interested in the property after she represented a client for a prospective lease agreement with Short. The transaction fell apart, but Kingsley’s own interest piqued and she ultimately negotiated a lease agreement in the spring of 2018.

Having “marginal” restaurant experience and never having sold one as a real estate agent, Kingsley stated she reached out to Ennis for permitted uses and required variances toward the end of 2017, prior to the agreement, and stated she was informed about restrictions on food preparation. She added that when she discussed the limitations with Short, “that was news to him.”

When Walsh cross-examined her and questioned why her application was filed on Nov. 15 – a week after the zoning violation was served – Kingsley responded that she was aware of the restrictions and had purchased the property “with the intent of going there.” She stated her efforts to address the zoning application were confounded by numerous out-of-town trips by her architect, and family emergencies that meant travel for Short as well.

The hearing board adjourned after a three-hour meeting and will continue at 7 p.m. March 14.