Councilors clash over Smith Hill restaurant’s liquor license denial

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A would-be Providence restaurant owner’s battle for a liquor license has sparked a political debate, after the businessman was approved for a license but then later denied because of the property’s proximity to a church.

The Providence City Council passed a resolution Thursday night backing Dalvan Perez, the owner of 375 Smith St., in his quest to get an exemption to a state law that prohibits liquor licenses from being issued to properties within 200 feet of a place of worship or school.

The vote was 8-3 in favor with 3 abstentions.

Perez said he purchased the building along with the lot across the street last year, and planned to open an establishment called Paris Bistro there. He was approved for a liquor license in May 2018, after which he says he spent tens of thousands of dollars on renovations.

But in February, shortly before Perez said he planned to open, the liquor board reversed course and denied the license, on the grounds that the building is within 200 feet of Christ Miracle Church on Chalkstone Avenue.

Perez’s building, currently an empty gray storefront, is located directly next to Patrick’s Pub, a popular spot for politicians and their staffers. The pub owner, Patrick Griffin, is a city employee and has a nearby street named after him. Patrick’s Pub has had an state exemption to the 200-foot law since 1999.

Perez appealed the liquor license denial to the Department of Business Regulation (DBR), but was again denied. According to the DBR decision, Griffin was an “intervenor” and argued against granting the license to his pub’s neighbor because of the proximity to the church.

Attempts to reach Griffin for comment were unsuccessful. But Nick Hemond, who represented Griffin in the case, confirmed that Griffin first alerted the city to the existence of the church within the radius.

Hemond said Griffin was concerned about the business not being in line with the character of the neighborhood, including that it might ultimately turn into a nightclub.

“We’re not opening up a nightclub,” Perez said. “I don’t want a nightclub … there’s nothing on Smith Street. There’s a funeral home and Patrick’s Pub.”

Perez’s attorney, former state Rep. Peter Petrarca, confirmed he is considering filing suit against the city to recoup the money Perez spent on the property after getting his liquor license approved.

“If the city would’ve told us no from the get-go, OK, fine,” Perez said in an interview. “But for them to approve it, but then nine months later when we’re getting ready to open to say, ‘no we can’t issue it to you,’ it’s like wow. What about the money that we invested in this place?”

Dylan Conley, the chairman of the licensing board, says the board members denied the license once they learned of the existence of the nearby church.

A radius map and list of property abutters submitted to the city by Perez as part of his application does show the 516 Chalkstone building listed as an abutter, but gives no indication that it’s a church. The property is listed as owned by two people.

No one answered the door at the church on Friday, nor was a phone call immediately returned.

At the City Council debate about the matter on Thursday night, Smith Hill Councilwoman Kat Kerwin called it an “issue of equity,” citing other establishments that have received liquor license exemptions from the state. 

“This is more of an issue of who gets these liquor , and who do they have to know to get these liquor licenses,” Kerwin said. Her nonbinding resolution to request an exemption for Perez was also backed by Councilors Sabina Matos, Helen Anthony, Michael Correia, Nirva LaFortune, Rachel Miller, David Salvatore, and Seth Yurdin.

Councilors Jo-Ann Ryan, Luis Aponte and Carmen Castillo voted no. Councilors John Igliozzi, Mary Kay Harris and James Taylor abstained.

Ryan argued that it wasn’t appropriate to pass the resolution without having a specific House or Senate bill to support.

“In this particular instance the Board of Licenses acted appropriately,” Ryan argued before the vote. “The [Department of Business Regulation] determined there was a valid church and upheld the Board of Licenses ruling.”

Igliozzi said he abstained because he’s currently in a similar battle with a liquor store in his neighborhood, but expressed concern about creating “special exemptions” for liquor licenses.

“The genie can’t be put back in the bottle,” Igliozzi said.

If the General Assembly chooses to grant an exemption, Perez said he envisions the restaurant being like a “tapas bar” with sports on the TVs. He said he has no plans to seek an entertainment license.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

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