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Tea Room gets a shot at drawing pints

Oxford House Tea Room patrons may soon be able to eat, drink and be merrier.

A Pinellas County judge's recent ruling that the City Commission erred when it denied the establishment permission to serve beer and wine could mean the city will have to let Oxford House turn on the taps, city officials said.

"What that means ultimately is that there will have to be another (City Commission) hearing to decide whether they'll be able to serve there," said John Hubbard, city attorney.

Roughly two years after the City Commission voted down the Oxford House Tea Room's request to serve alcohol on its premises, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge John A. Schaefer ruled that the city had no good reason to block the request.

"Oxford House, by all accounts, has been a long-standing, reputable business in the community, whose property interests must be recognized," Schaefer wrote in a Jan. 15 order.

City planning and zoning staff initially approved the 100-seat Orange Street restaurant's request to serve beer and wine in November 2002. But later that month, the City Commission voted to deny Oxford House's request after parishioners from the neighboring St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral objected to the proposed menu additions. Church members worried that customers who imbibed at Oxford House and then drove could be a danger to nearby schoolchildren and parishioners.

But restaurant owner Janet Jones, 46, said last week that she never intended for Oxford House to be a pub, and that the risk to St. Nicholas parochial school students is minimal, at best. She's thrilled with the court's decision, she said. Now she hopes the city will allow her to serve a little bubbly. "We're not a bad business," Jones said. "We're not going to be disturbing anyone."

The court apparently agreed. Schaefer wrote that the city did not have enough "competent substantial evidence" to deny Oxford House's request. The judge's ruling quashed the City Commission's earlier vote, but left it up to the city to decide how to help the church and the restaurant reach a compromise.

"(T)he Court notes that during the application process the parties had made attempts to reach an agreement amicable to all," Schaefer wrote. "The Court encourages the parties to once again attempt to reach an agreeable solution."

The Rev. Tryfon Theophilopoulos of St. Nicholas said last week that he was not aware of the court ruling, adding that he was disappointed in the judge's decision. The ruling leaves the church with few avenues of appeal, he said.

"If a court decides about that, then we have to abide by this," he said. "We'll inform the parents and we'll inform the teachers to be careful, that's all."

Hubbard said he did not know if or when the issue might next be brought before the City Commission. But he said he hopes the church and the tea room will be able to resolve their differences before it comes up for a vote.

"The parties ought to talk out something that's sensible that everyone can agree on so that this will not have to go to a hearing or go back to court," he said.

_ Candace Rondeaux can be reached at (727) 445-4181 or rondeauxsptimes.com.

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