Sept. 18, 2014 By Christian Murray
Despite the weather cooling down, the advocates for rear yard dining along Vernon Boulevard are continuing to put the heat on Community Board 2.
Renee Katsaitis, who is spearheading the movement, called on the board earlier this month to produce guidelines so bars/restaurants on Vernon Blvd know where they stand when they apply for rear yard space.
In its quest for guidelines, Patrick O’Brien, the head of Community Board 2’s public safety committee, invited Ken Lazar, a representative from the Department of Buildings, to last Wednesday’s meeting to discuss what restaurant owners must do in order to use their backyard space.
Lazar said that in most cases a restaurant/bar must obtain a certificate of occupancy that expressly states “rear yard use.”
The process to get a certificate of occupancy for rear yard use is considered expensive and time consuming.
“This involves hiring an architect or an engineer to do a zoning analysis,” Lazar said. The applicant must provide proof that the establishment meets fire safety standards, has proper egress and complies with zoning, he said.
Restaurant owners, however, who operate out of a building that was constructed before 1938 do not need a certificate of occupancy if the backyard space was used by a bar/restaurant back then.
“These are the rules,” Lazar said. “I’ve read a lot of the press and blogs bashing your community board,” he said. “To be blunt your community board has nothing to do with it.” He said the restaurant owners just have to comply with the rules or advocate changing them.
The outspoken owners of Alobar and L’inizio, who both seek backyard use, said in separate interviews that they do not have a certificate of occupancy expressly stating rear yard use.
However, they said that the costs are onerous and it is too risky to spend all that money to get one if the board is going to say no.
“The board is using this certificate of occupancy issue as a distraction—a red herring,” said Jeff Blath, the owner of Alobar.
Blath said that the certificate of occupancy should not be all that relevant to the community board’s decision. After all, there is no reason, he said, why the board can’t approve a restaurant’s application for rear yard use and make it subject to obtaining a certificate of occupancy.
Argilio Rodriguez, an attorney who represents restaurants seeking liquor licenses, said that the State Liquor Authority requires bars/restaurants to have a certificate of occupancy before they can open their rear yards in any case. Therefore, he said, this is not an issue that the community board needs to dig into too deeply.
There is no reason, he added, why the community board can’t approve an application and make it “subject to getting DOB’s approval” like it often does with hours of operation.
He said it is unreasonable to expect businesses to spend thousands of dollars without any assurances.
“It’s a catch 22,” said Tom Blaze, the owner of L’inizio. “If we spend thousands of dollars to seek a certificate of occupancy—and they say no we are out a lot of money.”