Fairfax County cracks down on some restaurants that serve up dancing
By Fredrick Kunkle,
Maria Aguilar, who owns Fast Eddie’s Billiard Cafe in Fairfax County, thought her business was headed pretty quickly toward success.
Every weekend, patrons flocked to the cavernous space on Route 1 south of Alexandria to eat, drink, shoot pool, throw darts and dance, sometimes to live broadcasts from the Latin radio station “El Zol” (99.1 FM).
But after growing complaints about noise, drunken brawls and other misbehavior, Fairfax County’s Board of Zoning Appeals decided this spring not to renew Fast Eddie’s special dance hall permit.
So the music stopped. Pool tables were hauled, like roadblocks, onto the 960-square-foot dance floor. Aguilar’s staff dwindled to five from 30.
“I thought I was doing everything right,” said Aguilar, 35, a Honduran immigrant who purchased Fast Eddie’s about four years ago. “Now it’s nothing.”
Aguilar blamed the crackdown on a cultural bias against Latino businesses that pair salsa on the table with salsa on the dance floor.
“The county has the power to say whatever they want, and they harass businesses, especially Spanish places,” Aguilar said. “They don’t understand our culture. When we go out, we want to dance.”
But Fairfax officials, noting the diverse county has economic programs encouraging minority-owned start-ups, say they have targeted businesses without regard to the ethnicity of owners or clientele.
Although the conflict between Fast Eddie’s and the county is no different from many others between businesses and regulators, it reflects the tensions that can emerge as Washington’s suburbs become more diverse.
Michel Zujar, president of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said disputes over dance venues have arisen elsewhere where Latino-owned businesses felt singled out for selective enforcement.
“I think the Latino culture is a celebrant culture, and they’re a passionate people,” said Zujar, who opened a Mexican restaurant in Richmond and helped others get going. “But I don’t think that should be confused with violating the rule of law.”
This month, Eileen M. McLane, the county’s zoning administrator, told the Board of Zoning Appeals that her agency has been reining in huge establishments that pass themselves off as restaurants with incidental dancing but operate as virtual nightclubs and disturb residential neighborhoods.
Although the current zoning ordinance says a restaurant’s dance floor may use one-eighth of the dining area, McLane said zoning administrators have been analyzing the overall design and purpose of establishments that morph into nightclubs.
McLane said the ordinance on restaurant dance floors was written in 1975, when most restaurants were small. In recent years, some establishments that call themselves restaurants have become huge, opening the door to much bigger dance floors.
After Fast Eddie’s lost the dance hall permit, for example, zoning officials also frowned on its request to reclassify itself as a restaurant with a dance floor that spans one-eighth of the dining area, or about 625 square feet, as allowed by existing ordinance.
County officials said a dance floor that size — along with Fast Eddie’s request for six pool tables and dart boards — would, in effect, create a nightclub better suited for billiards and boogying than a restaurant with some after-dinner dancing.
In June, the Board of Supervisors’ Development Process Committee urged county staff to draft possible zoning ordinance amendments to increase oversight.
A request under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act for information on county enforcement actions against restaurants that morph into nightclubs turned up two cases, each of which involved Latino-owned clubs. One was the Terra E Mare Bar and Grill in Seven Corners, and the other was the Star Lounge & Ballroom in Annandale. Both eventually closed. In interviews, their owners accused the county of discrimination.
County officials shut the Star Lounge & Ballroom last fall when the establishment hosted Plan B, a popular reggaeton duo from Puerto Rico. Police found about 500 people milling outside, some of them intoxicated and angry because they could not get in after they had bought tickets; inside, the club was jammed with almost twice its legal limit of 400 people, county records say.
Michael R. Congleton, a deputy zoning administrator, later testified at a Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control hearing that the Star Lounge’s occupancy permits were revoked on the spot because of hazardous conditions. He also testified that the disturbance on Oct. 15, 2010, marked only the second time in 30 years that the county immediately closed an establishment.
But Henry Bonilla, the Star Lounge’s owner, has disputed the county’s version of events and harshly criticized county administrators for abusing their powers.
“It’s just a bunch of racist people who go after Hispanic people,” said Bonilla, 42, a Gainesville resident who grew up in Falls Church after arriving from El Salvador in 1985. Bonilla, who is president of the Salvadoran American Chamber of Commerce of Washington, D.C., said that until the incident, the Star Lounge had successfully held many events, including events for other business groups and campaign fundraisers.
“We were compliant with everything,” he said.
County records say officials acted against Terra E Mare after neighbors complained that its booming bass rattled their windows four blocks away and police reported problems.
Hever Ruiz, whose family owned Terra E Mare, acknowledged in an interview that there had been some fights, but he said there were no more than anywhere else alcohol is served. Yet he felt the county, along with the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, coordinated an aggressive campaign to close the place.
“We don’t allow this kind of stuff in Fairfax. Take that [stuff] to D.C.,” Ruiz recalled one of the officials telling him.
“Also, I had other friends who had restaurants out there, and they just got shut down, too. I don’t know if this is coincidence, but these were all Hispanic places,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz, who now owns Cuzco in Hyattsville, told his family that they should cash out and focus on ventures in Maryland rather than fight Fairfax County.
Supervisor Jeffrey C. McKay (D-Lee) said Fast Eddie’s had been singled out only because the establishment was a well-known nuisance.
Stephen D. Pattison, 49, who lives next to Fast Eddie’s, said people complained when Fast Eddie’s opened as a pool hall in the 1990s, but there were few problems. In April 2009, however, Fast Eddie’s received a special two-year permit to operate with no more than 26 pool tables and a 960-square-foot dance floor that could operate only on weekend nights. Pattison said the troubles began as soon as the dancing started.
“My house would rock from it almost. You’d hear the thumping, the deep bass, coming through,” Pattison said. Then came drunken revelers who urinated in his yard, littered the street with liquor bottles and clashed with police in his driveway.
“That’s not the kind of stuff I want my kids to see and live through,” Pattison said.
Mindful of such problems, the Board of Zoning Appeals declined to renew Fast Eddie’s dance hall permit in the spring, restricting its entertainment to billiards. Zoning officials also advised Fast Eddie’s that the business could operate as a restaurant with dancing but only with an accessory dance floor no larger than 150 square feet, which was less than one-eighth of the space allowed by ordinance. The county also said the establishment would have to reduce the number of pool tables and dart boards to two each.
On Nov. 16, the Board of Zoning Appeals upheld the denial of a new dance hall permit and agreed that, as a restaurant, Fast Eddie’s could offer only one kind of accompanying entertainment — two pool tables, two dart boards or a dance floor. But the board also said the county must allow Fast Eddie’s to have a dance floor one-eighth the size of its dining area, as allowed by ordinance.
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