Appeals Board finds little credibility in bar owner’s defense, upholds citations

Citations issued to the owner of Palm Springs’ Hair of the Dog bar were upheld Wednesday evening by the Appeals Board, but the fines were reduced.

The city’s Appeals Board on Wednesday upheld three citations issued to a Palm Springs bar owner for violating emergency COVID-19 orders, but reduced the fines levied with those citations by more than half.

In a unanimous vote that followed an hour of testimony, staff reports and deliberations, Larry Bitonti, owner of Hair of the Dog English Pub at 555 S. Palm Canyon Dr., was ordered to pay $16,000 for violations discovered by code enforcement officers starting in November 2020. A series of escalating fines against Bitonti originally totaled $40,000.

“Loads and loads of businesses were really struggling with these orders and the vast majority found a way to abide by them,” said Board Chair Michael Paonessa before a vote on the fines. “It appears to me that this business was looking for ways to get around them.”

At the center of the debate Wednesday evening were rules that applied to establishments serving alcohol at the time of the citations. Under state orders in effect during the fall of 2020 and the winter of 2021, only those offering full-service, sit-down meals were allowed to serve alcohol. Even with full meal service, they were only allowed to seat customers outside.

Code enforcement officers who visited Hair of the Dog three times between November 2020 and January 2021 testified Wednesday that not only were bar patrons being served inside, but that food offered on a paper menu officers were shown, which appeared to be from a temporary taco stand not doing business at the bar, fell short of being full food service. Officers also reported seeing people inside the bar drinking, playing pool, and watching sports quickly disperse when they knocked on the bar’s locked door.

Charles Koller, an attorney representing Bitonti, acknowledged that patrons were inside the bar during one visit by the officers. He said that incident was simply a mistake made by an employee acting on behalf of Bitonti, who was concerned about the comfort of his customers. On the other occasions, Koller said, what officers thought were people playing pool were customers who happened to be touching pool equipment while they waited near pool tables to pay their bills. People seen dispersing by the officers, he claimed, were past and present employees who showed up to clean the bar and went on a break at the same moment officers arrived.

Code enforcement officers and city staff disputed those claims, pointing to photographs showing what they said was clear evidence of the violations.

“We didn’t observe any individuals engaged in any sort of cleaning or anything,” said Mitch Nabhan, one of the code enforcement officers who visited Hair of the Dog. “It appeared that the individuals were inside, watching a football game, and having a few drinks.”

Added a city staff member who briefed the Board: “I don’t think it’s believable that they just happened to be taking their break all at the same time and happened to end their break right when [officers] knocked on the window and then scattered.”

Board members were equally suspect of Koller’s claims, asking few questions before upholding the citations, while reducing the fines.

“I think the photos speak volumes,” said Paonessa. “I don’t find it credible that somebody is just throwing a ball on a pool table when they have a pool cue standing next to them. And we can see the pool cue next to those gentlemen at the pool table. We can see photos of people with cocktails and no food.”


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BRIEFLY

MASKS INDOORS?: Palm Springs officials announced Wednesday that the city would align with the county, state, and federal recommendations on mask usage, asking that vaccinated individuals again wear face coverings in public indoor settings. The move is only a recommendation and not an order. It comes after a spike in Coronavirus cases both locally and across the nation. There is no change in the requirement that unvaccinated individuals wear masks in indoor public settings.

Pictures taken of current conditions at the site of the former Palm Springs Country Club were shown during a Palm Springs Planning Commission meeting Wednesday evening. (photo courtesy of City of Palm Springs)

HOUSING PROJECT FRUSTRATION: The Palm Springs Planning Commission asked for more evidence Wednesday that a developer is making progress on a 386-unit housing project at the site of the abandoned Palm Springs Country Club before considering a deadline extension for $3 million in fees due in early November. “Very little work has actually occurred here,” said Commissioner J.R. Roberts in regard to the proposed Serena Park development. “I’m nervous about the viability of this project. … We’ve all unfortunately had our hand burned over and over with developers continuing and continuing and continuing and then going bankrupt or losing their financing.” The applicant, PS Country Club, LLC, is asking for a delay in the payment’s due date in addition to other revisions to terms of the development agreement, first approved in 2017. The developer must pay the fee to change the zoning on the former 126-acre golf course from open space to housing. Roberts said deferment of the payment after the project was first approved was “a gift to the developer” that he now regrets. Commissioners instructed city staff to prepare a full report about the project for their next meeting in September. A public hearing will also take place.

MASTER GARDENERS: Recruiting is underway for those interested in becoming master gardeners in the desert through the University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Program of Riverside County. If accepted into the volunteer program, applicants receive more than 50 hours of classroom instruction via Zoom and attend in-person classes for hands-on training. After completing 50 hours of volunteer service, applicants are certified as UC Master Gardeners. Mandatory informational sessions start in mid-August and run through early October. Applicants must attend one of the 90-minute sessions. Anyone interested in the program is encouraged to contact Melody Knox via email at [email protected]. You can also find more information online in both English and Spanish.


TODAY’S EVENTS

MIZELL EVENTS: The Mizell Center, 480 S. Sunrise Way, offers nine programs, starting at 8 AM. Today’s complete schedule can be found here. Included in today’s offerings is a movie, Resort to Love, in the Noia Auditorium at 10:30 AM.

EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE: The Desert Water Agency’s Executive Committee meets at 8 AM. More information about that meeting will be available here when it’s released.

PRIZE DRAWINGS: The Palm Springs Public Library will hold its summer reading program grand prize drawings at 10 AM on the library’s Facebook page. The reading program concluded on July 24.

FOOD AVAILABLE: FIND Food Bank distributes food in the city today at the community food bank, 610 S. Belardo Road, between 5 PM and 7 PM. That location is open every Thursday. A complete calendar of food distribution in the community is available here.

CRITICAL RACE THEORY: The LGBTQ Community Center of the Desert hosts a virtual talk about critical race theory as part of its “Let’s Talk About Race” series at 5 PM. The online event is hosted by Lex Ortega, and registration is available here.

SUPPLIES FOR STUDENTS: A backpack and school supplies giveaway is planned at the James O. Jesse Desert Highland Unity Center, 480 W. Tramview Rd., from 5 PM until 7 PM. The event will also include information booths, games, a raffle, snacks, and haircuts and braids for students. For more information, contact the Unity Center at 760-323-8271.

FREE MUSEUM ADMISSION: The Palm Springs Art Museum offers free admission from 5 PM to 7 PM this evening. Tickets are required and can be obtained here.

VILLAGEFEST: The city’s weekly outdoor street fair takes place at 7 PM on Palm Canyon Drive between Amado Road and Tahquitz Canyon. The event includes vendor booths on both sides of the street, which is closed to vehicular traffic.


COMMUNITY CONNECTION

Want to know what’s happening in your city and at agencies that make decisions affecting your neighborhood? The following links should help.

City of Palm Springs calendar of events | Official city contacts

Palm Springs Library calendar of events

Palm Springs Unified School District calendar | Board meetings

Mizell Center calendar of events

Desert Water Agency calendar

ONE-PS calendar of events

Police reports | Submit a police report

Code compliance reports | Report a code violation

Current road projects and closures

Street sweeping schedule

Currently active development projects

FIND Food Bank mobile market schedule

Well in the Desert daily meals | Food distribution

Palm Springs Disposal pickup schedule

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