Turlock's Tower at center of zoning dust-up

TURLOCK -- Private investigators, allegations of political pushing, fuming business owners -- the latest Capitol Hill scandal?


Tower Health & Wellness Center will go before the City Council on Tuesday.

What started as a fairly routine local government question -- can a restaurant in an upscale medical mall serve alcohol in the mall's atrium? -- has turned into something fit for prime-time TV.

"There's a conspiracy theorist out there," Mayor John Lazar said.

Tower opened two years ago, spearheaded by a medical family that moved north from San Diego with a concept new to what historically was a farming town. A medical clinic, day spa, restaurant, flower shop, cosmetic dentist, cosmetic surgeon, pharmacist, physical therapist, computer network business and other businesses were packaged into a designer building on Colorado Avenue, an area with single-family homes and hospital-related office space.

Emanuel Medical Center owns 39 percent of the complex.

Earlier this year, Dr. Sam Romeo, the family's patriarch, applied to extend the restaurant's liquor license into the building's main atrium for weekend weddings and other catered events. For months, weddings, wine tastings and other activities had been held in the atrium, but the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control sent the business a cease-and-desist letter. When the ABC asked the city Planning Department what it thought of the license extension, the response was, "What restaurant?"

Tower was zoned "commercial office," which allows restaurants with a special permit and does not allow bars and catered events. But before construction, the zoning was changed to a planned development that called for a "cafe."

There's the rub.

Cafe or restaurant?

City planners say a cafe is not a restaurant because the latter is a destination in itself and the former is an ancillary service to the pharmacy, spa, etc. The Romeos disagree. Cafe and restaurant -- same thing, they say. To compound the confusion, the city planner who first worked on the project has left City Hall.

The Planning Commission ruled last month that the res- taurant, Toscana's, can remain open, but cannot spill into the atrium for large-scale catered events. Debbie Whitmore, deputy director of Development Services, said Friday that it comes down to a basic land-use premise: "High-intensity retail" and catered events should not be held near neighborhoods, and "this is proposing to do just that." The precedent that approving the expansion would set, she said, would be very hard to manage.

Wait a second, said Mike Warda, a Turlock attorney retained by the Tower group. The kitchen design was on the blueprints since Day One, and Tower has held catered events without any complaints to the police or City Hall. Events have been booked through the new year, so there's clearly a demand.

"What I think has happened is you have a good businessman in Turlock and maybe his business has turned into something nicer and better than people expected, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be there," Warda said. "Ambiguities must be looked at in the light of the landowner."

Cafe or restaurant isn't the issue on the table, he said. It is simply a matter of whether alcohol can be served in the atrium.

Warda said he walked the neighborhood around Tower and asked for feedback. The result, he said, was overwhelming support for the project.

But one detractor lives right across the street from Tower and owns several adjacent parcels up for sale.

Accused of manipulating code

Art Dhallin contends that the Romeos manipulated city code to get the restaurant put in and that the application for the extension should not be granted because the zoning doesn't allow it. And he claims there's a nebulous connection between the Romeos and City Hall, particularly Mayor Lazar.

Dhallin, backed by an anonymous group of sympathizers, hired a private investigator to flush out the details. The PI combed the city for two days, talking to nearly everyone who bought or sold real estate from the large Romeo family.

Coldwell Banker Endsley and Associates, the real estate firm where the mayor works, has done much of Tower's real estate work, and Lazar sold Sam Romeo his home in 2004. He had a listing on another Romeo property as late as last year, but transferred it without making a dime.

Days after last month's Plan- ning Commission meeting and weeks before the PI hit the streets, Lazar said he asked the city attorney whether he has a conflict of interest. (Beyond the real estate dealings, Lazar's children use Tower physicians.) Since then, he said, he's double- and triple-checked, finding no conflict of interest. State law says if more than $500 has changed hands in the last year, then the conflict exists.

"I have no problem stepping down if I have a conflict of interest with the Romeos, but I've checked this three times with the city attorney and there's nothing there," Lazar said Friday. "We like the restaurant. We use the pharmacy. I'm paying them the money; they're not paying me."

Other foes join in the fight

Local business owners have joined Dhallin in the fight against Tower. Jennifer Bethel, owner of Bistro 234; Jim Kimball, owner of the Mercantile Mini Mall; and Stephen Backus and Ed Samo of On Broadway With Two Guys said if the council allows Tower's expansion, it amounts to unfair treatment.

"Zoning's there for a reason," Backus said. "If you make it political, why listen to the city at all?"

Bethel worked with the Romeos during the planning stages of Tower and said the idea was for a short-order cafe serving sandwiches and coffee, not a restaurant.

The mayor has called the downtown businesses' stance anti-competitive and a sad case of sour grapes.

"It's not sour grapes," Bethel said. "It's become a hot issue because we were all put through a much more tedious and stringent set of regulations than seemed to have occurred here."

Backus and Samo of On Broadway With Two Guys said they need more competition to draw bigger groups to Turlock, but, like Bethel and Kimball, feel they had to follow all of the city's rules and think the Tower group hasn't.

Warda, Tower's attorney, said those allegation are untrue. Lazar, who supports Tower's liquor license expansion, doesn't believe anyone has gotten off free either.

"At the end of the day," he said, "they're going through the same process, and I can't imagine the Tower folks think any of this has been a cake walk."

The Turlock City Council will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 156 S. Broadway.

Bee staff writer Michael R. Shea can be reached at mshea@modbee.com or 578-2391.