PORT RICHEY — Some nights the cars at Whiskey River Sports Bar & Grill fill the parking lots and line the nearby streets — much to the chagrin of neighbors.
"We're having a growing problem with Whiskey River. It's not getting any better," Sunset Boulevard resident Jim Priest, a former City Council member, told the council last month. "Now they're parked all the way down the road. It's gotten completely out of hand."
The wrangling over the restaurant's parking has spawned variances, court battles — and now an effort to restrict street parking throughout Port Richey.
Council members on Tuesday night discussed the possibility of establishing "no parking" zones to prevent cars from clogging up city streets. Council member Nancy Britton acknowledged the parking overflow issues outside Whiskey River, but said any street parking restrictions should be considered citywide out of fairness.
"I do not want to target somebody, I do not want to target somebody's business," Mayor Richard Rober said, agreeing with Britton.
The council asked city staff to investigate what it would take to establish "no parking" zones, as well as the legalities of residential street parking.
For now, Port Richey police Chief Dave Brown said his officers are placing red tags on cars parking on public right-of-way that mandate a vehicle be removed within 24 hours. Vice Mayor Bill Colombo called such a measure "patently absurd" for parking outside a restaurant where patrons are rarely going to leave vehicles for 24 hours.
"We don't have the teeth in that ordinance to write what you're wanting us to write," Brown replied, adding that establishing "no parking" zones would allow police to have vehicles towed right away.
Customer parking at Whiskey River Sports Bar & Grill — which sits along the Pithlachascotee River at 5245 Limestone Drive — has been the subject of great debate at City Hall for years. Complaints by Priest and other neighbors spurred the latest efforts by city officials to untangle a web of red tape and legal battles ensnaring the business.
William Burbach, who said his family has owned Whiskey River for three months, declined to comment for this story.
Back in 2008, when the restaurant was under different owners, the city granted two variances allowing the restaurant to expand its parking. The measures allowed the restaurant to reduce the size of parking spaces in the main lot, and reduce the required landscape buffering in an overflow gravel parking lot — in both cases creating more parking spaces.
Some neighbors, including Priest and Colombo, sued. In October 2010, a panel of appellate judges sided with the neighbors and tossed out the variances. The court found Whiskey River failed to meet the variance criteria, including properly outlining the hardships that would be faced without the variances.
The court's order also touched on Whisky River's zoning bind, as the restaurant and gravel parking lot are the only commercially-zoned parcels in the area. All of the surrounding properties are residential. The city rezoned the restaurant years ago, making it a legally existing nonconforming structure. Because the property is nonconforming, though, city code prohibits any expansion of the business, including parking expansion, according to the court order.
At a meeting earlier this month, neighbors complained the city had not enforced the court order — which, they said, should include shutting down the restaurant's gravel parking lot.
"The action of the courts was over 15 months ago, so the fact that we are just now getting to this is concerning to me," said Jim Hoster, one of the residents involved in the lawsuit.
In response, City Manager Tom O'Neill pledged a full review of all city files on Whiskey River. On Tuesday evening, he returned with a report that he had visited Whiskey River and met with the owners, who expressed interest in cooperation. But a review of the files found some paperwork missing and the need for more time to investigate, the city manager said.
O'Neill, however, said he has found a site plan and permit the city issued for construction of the gravel parking lot, as well a variance allowing a particular type of stone material to be used to construct it, and these approvals were not associated with the court order. That may make it difficult for the city to order the lot be shut down, O'Neill said.
But Colombo argued Whiskey River's gravel lot is not in compliance with city codes, so it should not be used.
"So at the point any car that's parking out there right now and the very construct of the lot itself is in violation of that setback," Colombo said. "So they shouldn't be using that as a parking lot. That's my take, again I would leave that final decision to our city attorney."
City Attorney Joseph Poblick said he is reviewing the matter as well.