Town cites permitting and land use regulation violations

By Chea Waters Evans, News editor

Charlotte Crossings is at odds with the Town of Charlotte yet again, as the Route 7 property owners claim they were “unexpectedly” asked to stop hosting food trucks in their parking lot this week. The building holds office space, a retail store, and has space for a restaurant, though one does not currently operate at the property. Building owners Debra Kassabian and Mike Dunbar, through their company Gemini Properties, have been hosting food trucks at the property throughout the summer and host a Backyard Bistro on weekend nights which is operated outdoors by La Villa restaurant. In recent months, Kassabian and Dunbar have been the driving force behind a push to amend the town’s Land Use Regulations so they can build a parking lot at the front of their property. The town cited 7 permit and Land Use Regulation violations as their reasons for temporarily halting food truck operations.

In a public Facebook post on Wednesday, the Charlotte Crossings page said, “We have just been notified by the Town of Charlotte that we need to end the Charlotte EATS! food truck events immediately. This was unexpected and we’re heartbroken as we have been excited to host you at Charlotte Crossings and bring our community together in a time of distancing.” The Town says the notice should not have been unexpected, and that the owners were given ample time and warning to address the issues.

In a letter dated Aug. 14, town Zoning Administrator Daniel Morgan sent a letter to Dunbar and Kassabian detailing the issues the town had with the property and food truck activity, and warned what would happen should they not be addressed. The first warning letter was sent on May 28. The Aug. 14 letter read in part, “This is our second attempt to address these issues, and there will be no further informal actions if these issues are not resolved.”

In an email to The Charlotte News, Kassabian wrote that she and Dunbar asked for help from the town to regulate these events. “We asked the town in late March about how to host food trucks and got an initial response that it’s ok to have food truck events on our property, and when asked about the process and application, we had no response,” she wrote. “This is a common theme at the town office, where some things go into a black hole. We’ve had similar experiences with repeated requests and submissions to the town for property signage approval and overflow parking… all have been met with zero response.”

Town Administrator Dean Bloch said that in light of the coronavirus situation, the rules were relaxed a little bit and Charlotte Crossings was allowed to continue the food trucks after the May notice.  “We did let them operate for a few months when things were really shut down, but now that things are opening up, we do need to enforce the regulations and make sure they comply with their permits,” Bloch said. “We’ve asked them to stop until they do get permits, and they are making appointments with the zoning administrator to do that.”

The town had multiple issues with both the property and the food truck presence there. In the Aug. 14 letter, Morgan wrote, “It has come to our attention that you have commenced land development without a permit at the above referenced property,” and noted that they violated two LURs. “More specifically, it appears that you have constructed a new, large graveled area that creates additional lot coverage on at least two or more sides of your structure, and which is not consistent with the terms and conditions of the Zoning Board of Adjustment’s decision granting conditional use approval…or the Planning Commission’s site plan approval…This construction activity  and new gravel parking  area also appears to be a violation.”

The letter also said that the food truck events “constitute land development without a permit” which also violates LURs, and said, “More specifically the Zoning Board of Adjustment decision granting conditional use approval …authorized a ‘restaurant’ use of your property…” The property is allowed to have a restaurant on the premises for food consumed there; the town takes the position that the food trucks do not fall into that category and instead “meet the definition of ‘restaurant/fast food’ uses, which are explicitly prohibited.”

Kassabian said that she thinks in the current pandemic situation, the food trucks fall into the restaurant category. “We are permitted for a restaurant, which during COVID, all restaurants have been mainly take-out businesses.”

Bloch said, “The permit was for very specific purposes and the food trucks were not included in that; they also have a permit called site plan review and the parking area does not comply with that.”

On his personal Facebook page in a public post, Dunbar wrote, “Covid-19 has crippled the restaurant industry. We worked hard to provide some cash flow for these operators and a safe place for locals to pick up some good food. One would think Charlotte zoning would encourage our efforts and help us make it through hard times. We have experienced the exact opposite. To anyone out there that may need to work with Charlotte Zoning…Lawyer up on day one—it will save you time, money and your sanity.”

The fine for continuing to operate is $200 daily, according to the zoning administrator’s letter. Bloch said that he does not have the authority to make decisions or judgments in this regard—those are left to the zoning administrator, the zoning board of authority, and the planning commission—“but it seems like there could be ways to bring it into compliance…It was, and is, a town asset and I think there’s interest in it, and I think there’s a way to have it continue.”