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SEASIDE PARK, NJ – Seaside Park has settled with Stephen D’Onofrio, the former owner of the Sawmill Café, for $2.5 million. The settlement from the borough’s insurer is believed to be the single largest payout of its kind on record for this small shore community.
The 160-page civil rights complaint, filed by Philip Davolos of the law firm Chance and McCann of Bridgeton, detailed D’Onofrio’s claim involving more than 50 town-wide defendants including police, building and borough officials.
“This case is a reminder that there are indeed consequences for the abuse of power by local governments. This is an excellent result for our client, which is what we always strive for,” Davolos said.
Court papers detail how borough officials inappropriately interfered with D’Onofrio’s operation in order to prevent “Black Bands” from performing at the Sawmill Café’s second floor “Green Room” from 2004 till 2009. The combined action of the defendants was commonly referred to in Seaside Park as “The Program.”
On April 13, 2004, the Sawmill Café hosted an African-American hip hop performer, Method Man, in ‘The Green Room.” D’Onofrio said. “The overreaction and subsequent abuse of power that the Sawmill staff and I endured for years after Method Man played will never be forgotten,” he said. “The Program was a living nightmare for my family and me.”
Seaside Park claimed for years that D’Onofrio invited the scrutiny of the police, planning, zoning and building departments after he made alleged misrepresentations to the Planning Board about the use of the Green Room. Zoning officials claimed that the restaurant was actually a night club after Method Man appeared.
All parties agree that night clubs are prohibited in the borough. Officials gave no further explanation, but did acknowledge that entertainment was prevalent at the Sawmill Café for more than 20 years prior to the Method Man event.
D’Onofrio noted he received the borough’s blessing in 2001 to move forward with a $4.5 million expansion of his then-iconic pizzeria and tavern on the Boardwalk. But as one former official expressed in a meeting to end “The Program” with D’Onofrio years after the Method Man show: “You couldn’t have Black Bands up here and not expect to have a problem.”
The Sawmill Café’s problems included:
· The Mayor and Council put multiple restrictions on the liquor license every year after the Method Man show, including a demand that tables and chairs on the second floor must not be moved or removed even after experts testify that it creates a fire hazard.
· D’Onofrio drove the Sawmill Café's manager, Kevin Kopacko, still bloodied by borough police, to the mayor’s home to show the abuse and attempted to open a dialogue with borough officials. (Kopacko later sued the borough and settled for $250,000.)
· Seaside Park police collected more than $2,000 from Sawmill Café employees for Alcoholic Beverage Handler I.D. cards. To date, the ID cards have not been issued and no explanation given.
The Planning Board revoked the restaurants’ Certificate of Occupancy (CO), and requested a letter from the borough engineer to support the revocation. D’Onofrio was convinced that the CO issue was just a ploy for the borough to reconvene and enact use restraints to prevent “Black Bands” from returning.
According to court papers, Zoning Officer Geoffrey Schwartz waited until 2006 to cite the business with a violation of operating as a so-called “nightclub.” Swartz, who was involved with the expansion of the Sawmill Café from the very beginning and was considered “a regular” at the establishment prior to the Method Man show, knew that bands had played at the restaurant for years.
Seaside Park Construction Official William Schultz – considered by D’Onofrio as the “poster boy” of abuse of power - spent years challenging the integrity of the Sawmill Café’s sprinkler system, which was repeatedly proven to comply with the engineers report.
In 2011 letters were discovered from the borough engineer to both Schultz and other officials. The letters proved that the borough engineer ultimately cleared the sprinkler system in early 2007. “I never meet a guy who was as irresponsible with a town’s time and money as Inspector William Schultz,” D’Onofrio said.
Between 2008 and 2009 the Borough passed a midnight closing on the bar and a portion of the restaurants ceiling caught on fire. Schultz condemned the building until repairs could be made. Knowing that repairs had to be approved by Schultz, and the loss of sales hours were not to be recovered. D’Onofrio felt that his only option was to sell or lose the summer sales and file for bankruptcy.
The new owners received a C.O. in time for the summer season. The record shows that Schultz approved conditions that were at one time cited as violations.
In 1977 I was 23 years old and I asked my Dad to help me make my dream come true by opening the Sawmill Café on the Boardwalk in Seaside Park,” D’Onofrio said. “In 2009, at the age of 55, I had to go back to him to end it. No amount of money in the world will make that feeling go away.”
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