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Banquet hall proposal tabled; B&B approved

A proposal to extend hours for an East Washington Street banquet hall was deferred, while a bed and breakfast on Pinner Street received approval, from Suffolk City Council Wednesday.

City staff had recommended denying a request from Jeffrey Townsend, the owner of Rennee’s Celebration Center at 178 E. Washington St., to extend its operating hours until 2 a.m. nightly. The Planning Commission, by a 5-3 vote, also recommended denying Townsend’s request.

However, following a public hearing and lengthy discussion from council, the body decided to table the request until the May 15 council meeting.

Townsend received a conditional use permit Feb. 7, 2018, to operate the banquet hall from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 9 a.m. to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, which are its current hours. His original conditional use permit application sought to have the business stay open until 2 a.m. nightly.

Townsend said his understanding of the original conditional use permit was that after a one-year probationary period, he would be allowed to come back to request that his hours be extended.

However, City Manager Patrick Roberts said that while there may have been some council discussion at that time about some kind of a review period, there was no formal documentation that it would happen.

Townsend also said he thought he was allowed to get a special event permit, but when he tried last fall and paid the $100 fee, he said he was told that was not possible, because his hours were set by the approved conditional use permit. That meant he lost out on hosting a New Year’s Eve party, he said.

He said police have only had to respond to his business once, and that was when a backdoor alarm went off.

Townsend, responding to a question from Councilman Tim Johnson, said he is losing out on hosting events like family reunions, holiday and birthday events, because he cannot stay open later.

Roberts said that if the banquet hall were to be allowed to stay open until 2 a.m., the council would have to make it a condition of the ordinance. All but one public assembly facility received council approval to stay open Sundays through Thursdays until 10 or 11 p.m., and until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. The other one, in a rural part of Suffolk, was approved to stay open until midnight Sundays through Thursdays, and until 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

“Consistently, we have recommended that all banquet halls in the city close at midnight,” Roberts said. “And that’s one of several very specific recommendations from the police department.”

Police Chief Thomas Bennett said he did not support the later hours of operation, saying “the later these type of establishments that have alcohol stay open, the more problems we have, generally.”

Councilman Mike Duman said he was concerned that the city could not grant a special event permit to Townsend.

“I think there’s a strong case for finding another way to make that available, if possible,” Duman said.

Councilman Donald Goldberg said he had concerns about allowing Townsend’s business to stay open until 2 a.m., but he would consider a special permit for individual events to operate at his facility until that time.

“I don’t begrudge Mr. Townsend for having a business and wanting to entertain people,” Goldberg said. “But somewhere along the line, we have to have a stable ordinance … or we open the gates for all people to get what they want and we fight this battle over and over.”

Mayor Linda T. Johnson said she agreed with Duman about looking at a way for Townsend to get a special use permit, but that the city needs to be consistent with its ordinances.

“We want downtown to grow and want it to be entertainment and to be lively and to have people here and to be alive,” she said. “I will tell you in most cities, there are places that stay open until 2 a.m. … We need to be very careful that what we do is fair and right, and that it works for everyone that comes before us.”

Council also held a public hearing on a proposal from Allyn and Kristen Brown for a bed and breakfast at 231 Pinner St. They sought approval for a conditional use permit to hold indoor and outdoor events for up to 40 people, and have worked out an agreement with First Baptist Church for the free use of 10 parking spaces during the week, and 20 on weekends, provided those spaces are cleared by 6 a.m. on Sundays.

The Browns had sought to be allowed to operate outdoors until 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, and until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. After discussion about the outdoor operating hours, the council, by a 7-1 vote, approved allowing the bed and breakfast to operate outdoors from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m., with amplified sound permitted. On weekends, it could operate indoors until midnight. Allyn Brown said the hours of operation wouldn’t be as big a deal to them as the number of people it could host at events.

“We definitely respect our neighbors,” said Allyn Brown. “So 10 o’clock is not going to have that big of an effect on us. If we were to have to do 20 instead of 40 people, that would have a big effect on us.”