Despite a fire in May that gutted the Pit Stop in Greenwood and damaged neighboring businesses, owner Gerald Wells hoped to rebuild.
That likely won't happen after Greenwood Town Council voted Wednesday night to proceed with an order to demolish the entire building, despite Wells' pleas to work with him.
"We want businesses in Greenwood, and we would have liked to see that business succeed," Town Manager Janet Todd said Thursday. "... The fact that it did not succeed, that burden is not on the town of Greenwood."
She noted that the bar had been shut down before the fire, after a fight.
The Pit Stop had been a divisive topic in town and had its detractors as well as supporters.
The controversy had gotten media attention just before the fire, and town meeting minutes from Oct. 14, 2020 show complaints from residents and local property owners about bar patrons' behavior, including multiple 911 calls for everything from parking offenses to disorderly conduct and fights. Neighboring businesses reported fights, as well as feces and vomit in the parking area out front.
Wells readily conceded the building needed to come down, but he presented testimony that he had a very rare tavern license, predating current code and grandfathered in. He said it would be lost if the building were entirely demolished and pleaded for permission to keep one wall standing and rebuild around that, which he said would allow him to keep his license.
He also said he wouldn't be able to get a new liquor license because of rules about location within 500 feet of a school or church.
John Cordrey, the Alcoholic Beverage Control commissioner for Delaware, said the Pit Stop does not have a tavern license, but a taproom license, one of 88 in the state, and he said tavern licenses are still available under current regulations.
The town of Greenwood had ordered the building demolished months ago, but Wells appealed. He brought several people with him to help bolster his case in an appeal hearing, where they gave sworn testimony and answered questions from Council members.
"Much of what I had envisioned when I had invested in the property had not come to fruition" because of COVID, he told the council, saying he wanted to rebuild with a full kitchen and make it a safe place for everyone.
"I want to have a good relationship with Greenwood; I want to have a good relationship with police," he said, apparently alluding to tensions with the town before the fire.
As the victim of a crime, he argued, "my rights have already been horribly impacted." The fire, which caused an estimated $500,000 in damages, has been declared an arson.
The gist of Wells' argument was that town rules allow buildings that have been grandfathered into code to be rebuilt if they are destroyed by fire or another "act of God," and so he should be allowed to demolish the structure except for one wall, if an engineer were to find the wall was stable.
James Sharp, an attorney for the town at the hearing (and no relation to this reporter), repeatedly focused on the issue of whether the building needed to be demolished, saying it was a narrow issue before the Council and the building's use was a different matter.
Anthony Massey, a town resident who testified in support of Wells, said if Wells lost that one wall, he'd lose a chunk of his livelihood. "You've got to be willing to work with him on that one wall."
The Council was not persuaded. After listening to Wells and his supporters, they read a lengthy, pre-written motion to proceed with the order, and unanimously approved it. Town Manager Todd and others pointed to the bad condition of the building and safety issues it presented.
Cordrey, the ABC commissioner, said his agency had suspended the Pit Stop's liquor license before the fire, as it was required to do when the town shut down the business.
Wells refused to speak to the Delaware Independent after the hearing, saying that the last time he talked to a news outlet, his bar had burned down, an apparent reference to a 47 ABC story that aired just before the fire.
John Galaska, chief deputy fire marshal in the Georgetown division, said there are no new updates on the arson investigation from the fire.
The demolition won't begin right away. The Council will need to approve a written version of its decision at a future meeting.
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