Proposed venue in former church in downtown New London is rebuffed by neighbors

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New London ― A request to convert a former church into a restaurant and meeting place has been delayed after neighbors refused.

At a three-hour meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission last week, neighbors expressed concerns about loud music late at night, smokers, increased foot and car traffic in the neighborhood, etc.

The commission tabled the discussion until its meeting on November 17.

Rod Cornish, owner of the Hot Rod Cafe for 17 years, bought the vacant former Apostolic Cathedral of Hope on the corner of Starr and Green Street in April for $315,000. He plans to call the unique space Stone Temple Venue, and the special permit application is to change the building’s use and obtain a liquor license.

The demand includes hours Sunday-Thursday 6am-1am and Friday-Saturday 6am-2am with in-house music and the possibility of live entertainment.

Commission Chairman Barry Levine said restaurants are allowed in commercial business districts to have those hours.

Cornish said his intention has always been to create a meeting space and fill a void he sees himself in town for weddings, birthdays, retirements or any party with a maximum of 250 people.

At the October 20 meeting, the Planning and Zoning Commission heard from several stakeholders on the property, including Frank McLaughlin of 18 Starr St., acting president of the Starr Street Association.

In his remarks, McLaughlin read the purposes of the special permit and said the commission will take into consideration “the health, safety and welfare of the public in general and the immediate vicinity in particular”.

He said one of the goals is that the development “will be in harmony with the appropriate and orderly development of the neighborhood”.

“We are fully prepared to support 157 Green St. as long as the property is developed and operated within the current zoning limits for this location without exception,” McLauglin said. “We are very concerned that the place is open after 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. Loud music after these hours and potential disturbances when patrons leave the venue will negatively impact the neighborhood. Other concerns include smokers congregating outside, drunks after 11 p.m., trash pick-up, vendors unloading supplies, performers loading instruments, all of which will block our one-way street and a way.

Cornish was not present at the commission meeting last week. He said he had a prior engagement. It was presented by its builder, David Preka, of Advanced Group in Groton.

Preka said opening hours are what is allowed but not necessarily what will be used. He said loading and unloading would take place in front of the building on Eugene O’Neill Drive and that there would be no more than ten trash bags on trash pick-up days.

Levine said the noise issue is regulated by ordinance, not zoning.

McLauglin said neighbors were told by Cornish that he had planned the venue for special events. He said the members had requested a meeting with Cornish and that the association’s then president, Barbara Neff, had said she would arrange a meeting, but never did.

McLaughlin said Neff resigned from his position three days after residents received notice of the Oct. 20 planning and zoning meeting in the mail. He said that given the association’s bylaws, requiring seven days’ notice for a special meeting, he had three days left to meet and prepare for the public hearing.

Attached to her comment in the archives, a resignation letter dated October 10 from Neff stated that she had to resign, effective immediately, due to disrespect by a member.

“I will not tolerate being spoken to as I was over the weekend,” she said in the letter. “I wish the organization the best for the future and regret any inconvenience my resignation may cause.”

Neff could not be reached to further explain his comments.

Barbara Donovan of 29 Starr St. pointed out that developers are required to post a sign visible from the street 30 days before the public hearing meeting. She said the sign in front of the old church said November 17.

Levine said the faulty notice meant the commission could postpone the meeting or it could continue.

The commission proceeded with the public hearing but ultimately decided to put the ownership discussion on hold.

Cornish is now open to selling the property after the deadline.

“I’m keeping my options open, but I’m still moving forward with the next meeting,” Cornish said on Monday. “Every moment that it doesn’t pass, I lose money.”

Cornish said he spent money buying the building, doing landscaping and paying property tax, among other things. He said he did everything within the rules and felt he didn’t need the blessing of his neighbors.

Cornish said he has made himself available to residents and plans to meet with a representative from the Starr Street Association this week.

“If I thought it would be a disruption, I wouldn’t,” he said. “When you buy a house or rent a flat in downtown New London you expect things and events to happen… I will be an addition to the neighborhood, more cars and more people – isn’t that what we want?”

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