It looks like a judge will have to resolve the conflict between Tarpon Springs commissioners and the owner of a local restaurant over what was expected when the city approved the restaurant's construction. While the owner of Jack Willie's Tarpon Turtle Grill ought to know that you can't operate a noisy bar and outdoor restaurant in a residential area without a backlash from residents, there is also an interesting lack of clarity on the city's part about what was — and wasn't — approved for the Tarpon Turtle location.
Tarpon Turtle owner Don Alvino seems to think the city is overreacting, and he claims he's done nothing to warrant the City Commission's decision Tuesday to go to court and try to get the restaurant shut down, at least temporarily. Alvino might want to get serious about straightening out his problems with the city, since Tarpon Springs has a history of successfully closing businesses that become a nuisance and threat to the public.
It was four years ago that the City Commission approved the site plan for the new Tarpon Turtle on the shore of Lake Tarpon. The resolution passed by the commission says the approved site plan is for "demolition and reconstruction of a 150-seat restaurant located at the end of Lake Tarpon Drive."
Two years later, the city approved a conditional use application to enable the new restaurant to obtain a full liquor license from the state, and also approved a new overflow parking lot addition, bringing the number of spaces to 80. Neither of those approvals specified how many seats were permitted at the restaurant, but under Tarpon's code, 80 parking spaces would translate to 240 restaurant seats.
For the last two years, people who live near the Tarpon Turtle have been complaining about the place. Among their complaints: The restaurant has more than 100 unpermitted seats on its outside deck; noise from the restaurant and its parking lot disturbs the neighborhood and violates the city noise ordinance; the restaurant has about 300 seats, not 150 or even 240; patrons fight and use foul language in the parking lot and speed on the road; litter is allowed to blow into Lake Tarpon.
Those complaints are similar to ones Oldsmar residents made against another of Alvino's restaurants, the Jack Willie's in Oldsmar.
Tarpon officials say Alvino has been uncooperative and didn't show up for a code enforcement hearing in October, so he is being fined $250 a day for code violations.
Alvino says he has 240 legally permitted seats, and that his site plan mentioned 150 seats only because that is the minimum number of seats needed to qualify for the liquor license he sought. He also says the restaurant displays a placard from the city indicating that the legal occupancy of the Tarpon Turtle is 240 people. Occupancy is different from site plan approval and has more to do with health and safety codes than land development. But it also isn't clear that the city ever put a formal limit on the number of seats permitted at the restaurant.
Regardless of the details of this dispute, one thing ought to be clear to all sides: A 240- to 300-seat watering hole that plays loud outdoor music, allows patrons to drink until they become disorderly, and has become known to residents and police for noise, litter, speeding and fights will never work near homes.
It would be in Alvino's best interest to clean up his act if he doesn't want to have to explain his business practices to a judge. Meanwhile, the rules for conditional uses allow the city to put new, strict conditions on the business and also report the problems to state alcohol authorities.