Pond House Café: A Neighborly Dispute That Is Best Forgotten
October 13, 2008
It was a classic neighborhood battle that threatened to kick off a border war between the capital city and its suburban neighbor to the west.
At the heart of the dispute was the Pond House Café and Banquet Center, an upscale eatery nestled against the rose gardens in Hartford's lush Elizabeth Park. But as the controversy dragged on, it came to encompass a complicated stew of issues, ranging from traffic and noise concerns to cries of elitism to the question of whether a public park ought to be home to a private business.
The city of Hartford owns the park, which is located partly in the town of West Hartford. In 2001, after the West Hartford Town Council placed zoning restrictions on the Pond House — including a ban on alcohol in the banquet facility — Hartford sued West Hartford in state Superior Court.
In June 2002, following an election that shifted power on the West Hartford council from Republicans to Democrats, the town and the city reached a settlement that essentially undid many of the restrictions on the Pond House. But in August 2003, Superior Court Judge Robert Beach granted 11 West Hartford neighbors of the park intervenor status, which gave them a say in the settlement. Their objections effectively killed the agreement.
Ultimately, a truce was achieved after the West Hartford council agreed to conditions that would affect parking and traffic.
Many of the patrons dining on pan-seared pork tenderloin and Thai calamari strings have no idea of the battle that once raged.
"You never forget certain things, but it was long ago and I think things have worked out well for everybody, for the city, for West Hartford, for the neighbors and for us," said Pond House Café owner Louis Lista.
The restaurant has taken on a number of responsibilities within the park, including mowing the lawn and overseeing the flower beds near the restaurant. "It takes some of the burden off the Friends of Elizabeth Park and city of Hartford," Lista said.
Pat Alair, West Hartford's assistant corporation counsel, said the town has received a smattering of complaints through the years. Some people have complained about cars going the wrong way through the Walbridge Road entrance to the park, "that kind of thing," Alair said. Overall, "it seems to have worked out pretty well."
Of course, Alair added, "the neighbors might have a different view."
One Birch Road resident said there remain concerns, especially about the propriety of permitting a for-profit venture to operate within a public park. However, she declined to discuss her concerns in detail or even provide her name for fear of reopening old injuries.
"It was neighbor vs. neighbor, a painful process," she said.