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Some Favor A Curfew For Stores

July 5, 2005
By OSHRAT CARMIEL, Courant Staff Writer

At midnight, the U-Stop convenience store serves as many things: purveyor of potato chips, vendor of cheap cigars, or simply a place to be if, in Hartford's early morning hours, you need a place to be.

To some North End residents, the store is more nuisance than convenience, an address that ranks high among locations where police routinely visit. In March, two brawling men had a shootout inside the store, striking a 16-year-old girl in the face and leg as she bought candy and soda.

Havens for loitering, drug dealing or other activities best done in the dark, late-night or all-night convenience stores like U-Stop are simply not necessary in Hartford, say neighborhood leaders. At their urging, the city council is considering a proposal that would prohibit convenience stores from being open past 10 p.m. citywide and prevent new ones from opening.

"They're convenient," said Helen Nixon, chairwoman of the Northeast Neighborhood Revitalization Zone. "But convenient for whom?"

Laws that curtail 24-hour businesses have been passed by towns and cities nationwide, including New Haven, which in 2003 limited late-night commerce to its more populous downtown core. Hartford's proposal, however, is languishing, as city lawyers question whether it's legal and political insiders wonder whether it's viable since its sponsor, Councilman Kenneth H. Kennedy, has little clout among the powerbrokers at city hall.

"I have serious reservations about its legality, let alone its enforceability," corporation counsel John Rose Jr. wrote in an e-mail to Kennedy last month.

Rose declined to discuss his legal concerns. He did say that the council is not the appropriate body to pass such a law since it is a matter of planning and zoning - and should be taken up by the planning and zoning commission. For now, the idea remains before the council's planning and economic development committee, which tabled it pending an official opinion from Rose.

Hartford police say they frequently make arrests in or near a number of city convenience stores for an assortment of offenses: receiving stolen goods, selling liquor on Sundays and selling illegal drugs. Some of the stores have also been the scene of shootings or gunshots fired or have been magnets for large crowds, police said.

In addition to U-Stop on Barbour Street, police recite from memory the stores they consider "hotbeds" of criminal activity: King Kong Grocery on Mather Street, the Smoke Shop on Capen Street, a shop outside the former Dutch Point housing project. The state's attorney's office contacted owners of the store property near Dutch Point last year, warning them that the business, and the crimes committed in its vicinity, were running afoul of the state's nuisance abatement laws. An assistant state's attorney ordered the owners to close the store no later than 9 p.m.

In New Haven, businesses in largely residential areas may not stay open between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. without special permission. Late-night businesses are still permitted, however, in small sections of the city's core, which is more densely populated and where officials are hoping to bolster a vibrant downtown neighborhood.

"If there's a lot of people somewhere, then there's not a lot of trouble," said Felipe Pastore, deputy corporation counsel in New Haven. "If you're in an area that's sort of quiet and you have a store that's open there, that's going to draw all the bad things to it."

Champions of the proposal in Hartford say those who venture to a convenience store past 10 p.m. are not usually people with a case of late-night munchies. Rather they come in search of the other conveniences sold at just about every after-hours convenience store: rolling papers and individually sold cigars, the insides of which can be gutted and stuffed with narcotics. Another big seller, police say, are decorative glass vials with a fake rose inside, which, when the flower is removed, can be fashioned into a crack pipe, police said.

"If I need some groceries, I'm not going to go out of my house at 1, 2, 3 o'clock in the morning," said Frank Barrows, a West End resident advocating for limiting convenience stores.

But some convenience store owners say that's exactly what people come searching for.

"From 8 to 12 [midnight], that's when the stores sell the best," said Adrian Cruz, speaking on behalf of his cousin Maryann Diaz, who manages the U-Stop store. "Sodas, bread, everything. There's a lot of people who buy then."

Cruz and Diaz, who said the U-Stop usually closes about 2 a.m., said business would suffer under a more restricted schedule.

Even if the council decided to take action, it might not be able to limit the hours of existing businesses. "You generally cannot retroactively change the rules of the game with regard to zoning for uses that are already there," said James Schwab, senior research associate at the American Planning Association.

If an existing business is truly a health or safety hazard, it can be dealt with through criminal nuisance laws, not by zoning rules, he said.

Kennedy, who first proposed the convenience store resolution in May, has asked that the issue be revisited at the next council meeting this month. He said it's a basic quality-of-life issue, not a political one.

"Every resolution I seem to put forward seems to have legal issues. There's an undertone that's slightly frustrating," said Kennedy, a lawyer who has had a rocky relationship with Mayor Eddie A. Perez and his allies on the council.

"You try not to think that there's possibly other motivations. You really don't want to think that," Kennedy said. "My gosh, all this is, is the neighborhood folks trying to get something through. This is a neighborhood issue, it's what the neighbors want, let's help them."

Perez declined to comment on Kennedy's proposal.

"It's being studied right now," said mayoral spokeswoman Sarah Barr. "Upon further study, he'll get back to you on it."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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