Zoning violators in Bethlehem may want to take notice: Code infractions may end up costing you hundreds of dollars or more, or even worse land you in jail.
Alteri’s restaurant owner Harvey Quinn said he has been singled out along busy Route 9W in Glenmont for having a lunch buffet banner outside of his business. He is now scheduled for a jury trial on May 14 and may be facing up to a year-and-a-half in jail for his violation of the town’s zoning code.
The town said Quinn was given several opportunities to clear up the matter and that he was the one who requested the jury trial. Officials said banners are illegal in town without a variance, and Quinn was cited for being in violation, adding that he was never arrested and is not being targeted.
Bethlehem police confirm that Quinn was not arrested and that he was cited for violating town code by Bethlehem chief building inspector Gil Boucher.
Quinn, however, said he is convinced Boucher is unfairly attacking him and pointed to numerous other illegal banners throughout town that go unchecked. He claims local and independent businesses are put to a different standard than the national chains popping up along 9W.
I want to represent myself, but [town officials] don’t want that. They sent me to a public defender,` Quinn said.
`The public defender said he thought it was one of the top five stupidest cases he’s ever heard of. He said he only handles criminal matters.`
However, according to the town attorney, James Potter, who cited section 128 of the town code, violations can carry a sentence involving jail time for repeat offenses. Quinn is being cited for zoning offenses for every day he kept the banner up, and subsequent offenses can carry increasingly stiffer penalties.
The issue started in early 2007, according to Quinn, after Chili’s Restaurant moved into the area and Quinn’s usual lunch crowd began to dissipate. He then decided to put up two banners advertising a lunch buffet special underneath his permanent businesses sign. Quinn said he got the lunch crowd back as a result.
`We took lunch back from Chili’s people were parking on the grass, it was so busy,` Quinn said. `Then Gil told me to take down the banners, and we got into a little argument over sign violations.`
Continuing, Quinn said that Boucher is a friend of a Chili’s manager and that he eats there several times a week, but when he confronted Boucher about the conflict of interest Boucher allegedly responded, `Don’t discuss Chili’s. I eat there three times a week.`
Quinn also contends that Boucher told him he filed the complaint against Quinn after photographing the sign violation, and that Chili’s did not file the complaint.
Quinn said he is `fighting to survive` as a businessman.
Chili’s declined comment, but when The Spotlight asked to speak with a manager, a man who would only identify himself as `Jason,` said he was unaware of the situation, but there are four managers at the restaurant.
`Nobody’s friends with anyone here, we’re friendly with all of our customers,` the manager said. `It’s called hospitality; that’s why people like coming here.`
Boucher could not be reached for comment, but Supervisor Jack Cunningham said no comment on the building inspector’s behalf, saying the matter was currently under litigation.
`He had a banner in violation of the zoning code. We do enforce our codes,` Cunningham said of Quinn’s citation. `I’ve heard these wild accusations before, and it’s not germane to the trial.`
Cunningham also said it was `extraordinarily uncommon` for a zoning violation to end up in a jury trial, saying, `My understanding is that it’s not criminal.`
The supervisor said that the town’s building inspectors act as code enforcers and hand out citations for violations.
`Most of the owners comply before they are cited for a violation,` Cunningham said.
Cunningham did not respond to a request before publication of The Spotlight for records detailing how many businesses have been cited for town code violations in the past year or how many businesses were warned in lieu of a citation.
Nanci Moquin, the town’s zoning board of appeals administrative assistant, said Quinn did come to the zoning board to request a sign variance, but did not provide information requested of him for his application and his request was ultimately denied.
`When he first came in, he stated that he lost business and we asked for documentation showing this,` Moquin said. `He never brought it in, and he never came back.`
Moquin said the board left the case open, however, and that Quinn can re-apply `at any time` if he provides documentation showing his lost revenues. Quinn was issued a letter stating the reasons of his denial and the request for documentation, according to Moquin, but she said Quinn called and said he was unable to provide the documents due to `personal problems.`
Quinn said he sent a letter to the town asking for dismissal saying there is no basis for his banners being in violation, and he said he couldn’t provide documentation at the time because the previous owner of the restaurant had just died and his restaurant had lost `several employees.`
`All signs must be constructed of a durable material that doesn’t move,` Quinn said of town code. `When the winds blow, my permanent sign moves the code is supposed to prevent moving mechanical signs and flashing lettering or a strobe, not banners.`
Cunningham said Quinn is wrong, and town code specifically outlaws freestanding banners not attached to a building, without a variance. Quinn was offered a deal instead of going to trial, which included a fine and his acknowledging he was in violation of the code.
Quinn rejected the offer.
`They offered me to plead guilty and pay a $350 fine and whatever conviction they give me. I’m a restaurant that has a liquor license, that’s not acceptable for me,` said Quinn. `This restaurant has had banners up for 20 years straight.`
The idea of possibly being convicted or sent to jail doesn’t scare Quinn, but what would happen to his daughter does.
`I’m a single father with a 5-year-old girl that stays with me,` Quinn said. `That means she’ll be sent to foster care and this place will be closed down without a doubt, but the worst part would be to my daughter.“