WESTERLY — The owner of four Misquamicut businesses has secured Licensing Board approval to open later this year but officials say they will be keeping a close eye on his operations. Meanwhile, the businessman faces a $135,000 Municipal Court fine related to a lighted sign installed on the front of his motel.
On Thursday, the Licensing Board voted 4-1 to enter into a consent agreement with Eugene Arganese and his Gene Properties Limited Liability Company as a condition for renewal of his business licenses for his Sandy Shore Motel and Gino's By the Beach restaurant, both on Atlantic Avenue, and a parking lot he runs on Winnapaug Road. The agreement also pertains to the Ocean Bar, which is on the motel premises.
Board members expressed frustration with Arganese and hesitancy to approve the agreement.
Dylan Conley, the board's lawyer, recommended the board approve the agreement as a means to more closely regulate Arganese's businesses and to help build a record of incremental discipline for a businessman who has drawn the attention of town and state officials numerous times during the last 10 years. A vote not to renew the licenses might not survive a judge's scrutiny, Conley said, if Arganese appealed to Superior Court.
The Ocean Bar, Conley said, was cited in September for violating several COVID-19 regulations imposed on bars and restaurants by the state. Conley also described aspects of the dispute over the lighted sign on the front of the motel and said Arganese would soon answer to a contempt of court charge related to the sign. In November, Judge Sarah Taft-Carter ordered Arganese to remove the sign within 30 days after upholding the Zoning Board of Review's denial of a sign permit. Arganese uses the sign to promote motel room rates.
In addition to the sign and failure to abide by the COVID-19 regulations, unregistered vehicles have been found at Arganese's property and he has received complaints about trash management and disposal of cooking grease, Conley said.
"The code enforcement officer has presented to me a narrative with 20 separate incidents — eight within the past two years," Conley said.
Other incidents that Conley did not mention include failure to abide by an agreement with the town to restrict the Ocean Bar to motel patrons and failure to obtain permits from the state before constructing the outdoor bar.
Paul Gencarella Jr., the board member who voted against entering into the agreement, said he could not approve it in "good conscience." The board has a history, Gencarella said, of merely "slapping [Arganese] on the wrist."
"It doesn't leave a good taste in my mouth to grant a renewal, especially with the open court dates. How could we approve it with what was presented to us?" Gencarella said.
William Nardone, Arganese's lawyer for the licensing issues, said the situation has "served as a wake-up call" for Arganese and that his client planned to pay closer attention to the operation of his businesses. Nardone also defended Arganese, saying he believed many of the allegations made against him were anecdotal. Arganese, Nardone said, quickly brought the bar into compliance with the state COVID-19 regulations and passed a second inspection.
"This is based upon more than a month of negotiations … this is the conclusion we have reached. This is a significant penalty that Mr. Arganese would face for any particular proven violation," Nardone said, referring to the consent agreement.
Under terms of the agreement, Aragenese would face a 21-day license suspension for specific violations if after issuance of a notice of violation and a hearing the board determined the violations occurred and were not remedied within three days of issuance of the notice. Potential violations subject to the agreement are unregistered vehicles, violation of zoning sign standards, violation of trash and waste management standards, and failure to abide by COVID-19 regulations. If the board found other violations occurred, Arganese would be subject to a 10-day suspension and would waive the right to appeal the penalty.
Board member Mary Belanger said she was reluctant to approve the agreement.
"I get the feeling that Mr. Arganese feels that he is above the law — that he does not have to comply with anything and everybody else has to so he is looking for a pass," Belanger said.
Dawn Robinson, a board member, said she would approve entering the agreement for one reason. "I do not agree with the way that he runs the business. The only way I would vote for this is because" of the 90 employees who Nardone said work for Arganese, she said.
The sign dispute dates back to at least 2009, when Arganese was cited for having an improper lighted sign. He and the town eventually entered into a court-sanctioned agreement that included a provision prohibiting Arganese from replacing the sign with a new one. The town argues Arganese did exactly that in 2017, but Arganese claims he simply repaired the old sign.
A hearing on a motion to find Arganese in contempt of court is scheduled for later this month before a Washington County Superior Court judge. A similar dispute related to the same sign is playing out in Municipal Court. The town agreed, under its most recent offer, to reduce the fine Arganese has to pay to $135,000. The town maintains the fine would be much larger if it was calculated at the $500-per-day rate it says could be applied.
Louis Cappuccio, the lawyer who represents Arganese in the sign cases in the Superior and Municipal courts, could not be reached for comment on Friday afternoon.
Belanger, Robinson, Joseph M. Nigrelli Jr. and Licensing Board Chairman Michael Cardiff voted in favor of the consent agreement.