To hear Dan Hemann tell it, Fort Bragg's Headlands Coffeehouse is a blight on an otherwise quiet downtown—a raucous cesspool where drugs, booze and urine flow freely. Worse still, Headlands has set a potentially disastrous precedent. In its 13-year history, this family-run coffeehouse has contributed to downtown Fort Bragg becoming an alarmingly vibrant neighborhood. In so doing, they've encouraged other “pro-alcohol forces” to crawl from the gutter, opening restaurants that sling chilled Chardonnay and feature occasional live entertainment. They've created a monster, and that monster is an upscale Italian dinner-house called V'Canto.
Hemann owns the Green Door Studio art gallery on Fort Bragg's Laurel Street, across from both V'Canto and Headlands Coffeehouse. He loathes his neighbors with a vitriol rarely seen outside of sports and international politics. But he also has a bone to pick with the State's Department of Alcohol Beverage Control, the City of Fort Bragg and “the man”—the big business, big money interests behind local businesses that offer beer and wine and live music performances. All of these entities are corrupt and fraudulent law-breakers, hell-bent on ruining Hemann's quality of life.
When V'Canto applied for a beer and wine permit allowing the restaurant to stay open until 10pm on weeknights and 11pm on weekends—one hour later than most Fort Bragg's eateries—Hemann launched a full-on assault on the restaurant. He took his case to the local newspaper and the city government, then to the state's ABC. Having effectively lost those fights, he's now threatening to take it all the way to the state attorney general, Jerry Brown. He says his partner, who he wouldn't name, ran Brown's 1992 presidential campaign and that she'll take it to Brown personally—“not in Sacramento, but in his Oakland home.”
If ever there's a time when something can be done about “the loitering, the drug dealing, the urinating behind the buildings, everything that goes with live music,” it's now, Hemann says. That's because there's “someone as righteous as Jerry Brown in office, someone as righteous as Barack Obama in office.” To recap: POTUS himself is going to side with (self-described) internationally-renowned sculptor Dan Hemann in what's shaping up to be the diplomatic crisis of the year: the petty dispute between two Fort Bragg business owners over one hour of dinner service.
That dispute has now been decided by the state's department of Alcohol Beverage Control, which granted V'Canto's hours and the right to play acoustic—but not amplified—music. Fort Bragg's Planning Commission had already issued a use permit. Hemann, however, calls that permit “fraudulent” because it violates a 1972 ordinance forbidding noise that causes “annoyance or discomfort to a reasonable person” in a residential neighborhood. Meanwhile, the city's community development director, Marie Jones, says V'Canto isn't in a residential neighborhood; it's in the Central Business District. Later this year, Fort Bragg will revise its development codes to entirely do away with the need for use permits downtown, she says.
Hemann says he won't pursue an appeal of the ABC's decision “because I don't see much point in continuing to pursue a bureaucracy that is this corrupt.” But that doesn't mean Green Door is giving up. “It's going to have to go to a higher level,” he said. This commitment comes from the belief that ABC siding against him amounts to “the regulatory taking of property”—that, in short, granting V'Canto its one-hour request will destroy Green Door's property values.
Like Headlands Coffeehouse before it, V'Canto sets a precedent. It takes us one step closer to Fort Bragg's emergence as “the next Las Vegas.” Hemann's future-casting goes on to predict that there will be pole dancing and casinos and that the city will have lost its “potential to become a five-star resort, better than Mendocino.” In this vision, Fort Bragg's the next Carmel—Hemann's hometown. “There’s no live music allowed [there],” said Hemann, “and they have some of the best tourism in the country.”
V'Canto's owner, Jim Muto—also the original owner of Piaci, Fort Bragg's popular hole in the wall pizza joint—says he won't give in. “No matter what, people are going to enjoy their lives—even if [Hemann and his partner] aren’t enjoying theirs,” Muto said. “They can be sad sacks if they want. But even if [Hemann] succeeds, the people will remember that they came and had a good time.”
At the heart of the issue, it seems, is a difference of a opinion about so-called mixed-use neighborhoods—those downtowns where people both live and work, where businesses operate on street level and residences occupy the upper floors. In Muto's view a downtown should be lively. “We live somewhere with 180,000 acres of land,” he said. “If someone wants peace and solitude, they can go off and hear nothing but a few animals. But this is a downtown district, where people go to enjoy and let loose some of their energy, to meet other people.”
Hemann, meanwhile, uses nightlife as a slur and refers to V'Canto's patrons as bar flies. “It's not a restaurant,” Hemann said. “It's a bar—a wine bar.” Hemann insists he's not against alcohol or music, but his tone seems to belie an unmistakable disgust. He accuses V'Canto of having gotten “their patrons liquored up and had them come down to try to beat me up. They’ve staged accidents in front of my shop. We call them on it every time. They send crippled bar fly friends to try to trip over chairs and stuff.” For these supposed abuses, Hemann sought a restraining order against V'Canto's owners. Judge Jonathan Lehan denied the request for lack of evidence.
Hemann may fear V'Canto's owners, patrons and staff. But he cuts a pretty frightening swath himself. When pressed on a location more appropriate for a restaurant cum wine bar than downtown, Hemann accused me of being aligned with the pro-alcohol forces, citing the Advertiser's home “in the vineyard valley—with the vintners.” Then, he warned me. But threatening physical harm would be too plebeian for Hemann, so he employed his weapon of choice: litigation. “Be careful what you write, young lady,” Hemann said. “If you print something stupid, you too will be sued.