‘Not giving up without a fight’: Darien VFW, Piedmont Club frustrated by increased liquor license fees

DARIEN — Many local businesses and nonprofits have struggled during the pandemic, but the Darien VFW and the Piedmont Club say an increase in the cost for a liquor license feels like its rubbing salt in the wound for the historical nonprofit clubs.

Scott Vanderheyden, quartermaster and past commander of the VFW, as well as house committee chairman, got a surprise when he tried to renew the club’s license — the fee that was previously $300 had now shot up to $2,000.

Changes were made when “An Act Streamlining the Liquor Control Act” passed in 2019, consolidated various on-premise permits which resulted in changes to nonprofit clubs’ permit fees.

Vanderheyden said he contacted state Sen. Bob Duff and state Rep. Matt Blumenthal pleading for help for the already pandemic-strained VFW.

“Under PA 19-24 (an Act Streamlining the Liquor Control Act) the Darien VFW’s liquor permit renewal would skyrocket from $350 to $2,000. This would devastate our club especially during COVID and force us to close our doors after 75 years of service to the community,” Vanderheyden said.

Both Blumenthal and Duff responded they would look into it.

“We’re aware of the issue and actively working on a solution. When either Matt or I get more info, we’ll do our best to be back in touch,” Duff said.

On Tuesday, Blumethal said “thankfully, the Governor's executive authorities prevent any increase in the VFW's permit fee until April.

“For the long term, we are supporting a bill to avoid such a drastic increase. The bill just passed out of the General Law Committee, and we believe it will pass the General Assembly promptly and with broad support,” he said.

State Rep. Terrie Wood said the the provision in the new law needs to be rolled back particularly for our non-profit organizations.

“This is an unfair increase and not sustainable for non-profits. I understand that this will be addressed in this legislative session,” she said.

Darien VFW Post 6933, on Noroton Avenue, is a nonprofit organization and historical landmark that once housed the Chapel for the Fitch Home for Soldiers, the first home for soldiers in the United States, built in 1864. It was also the location of the step off for the town’s earliest Memorial Day parades. It is operated entirely by volunteers.

Mike Vitti, former chief of the Noroton Fire Department, is general manager of the Piedmont Club, which was founded in 1916. Now the Piedmont Club sits at 152 Hecker Avenue and continues to host social gatherings for members of the organization, as well as special events for the Darien community, while promoting the Italian and Italian-American heritage. The Piedmont also provides support for many community based programs, youth sports, and a variety of charitable causes.

Vitti expressed frustration about the fee increase, saying it could have been done with gradual increases “or even waited until everyone gets back on their feet.”

Vitti added the increase came “without warning” and said the Piedmont is “barely making ends meet and they hit us with an unreasonable increase.”

State Sen. James Maroney initiated a discussion about the impact of the change on nonprofit clubs at the end of January. On Feb. 2, Maroney announced that the General Law Committee had passed a bill that would reduce the permit fees for nonprofit clubs.

The fees had “been inadvertently raised by the sweeping overhaul of the state's liquor statutes in 2019,” Maroney said on his website. “This bill will allow for an adjustment to the annual fee for a cafe permit for prior holders of club permits and nonprofit club permits and allows the Department of Consumer Protection to refund anyone who paid the $2,000 fee the difference.”

The bill, An Act Concerning Club Permit and Nonprofit Club Permit Fees, now heads to the state Senate. On Monday, Maroney said a current executive order gives the clubs an extension until April 20 to pay the fee.

“We intend to have the fix voted into law by that time. The next step is for the bill to be called on the floor of the Senate,” he said.

Even without this increased license fee, the Darien VFW has been struggling throughout the pandemic. Vanderheyden said he’s been working at the VFW during the day and calls come in for help all day long. The VFW has done everything from helping members with unexpected bills to helping a widow pay for funeral expenses.

In the fall, Wreaths Across America organizer and VFW member J.C. Carter pointed out that both programs were struggling due to the pandemic. Darien VFW, like others, operates as a bar that serves as a primary fundraiser for the organization. Bars were largely impacted by pandemic closures in Connecticut.

A large contributor to the VFW annual budget was the annual Fourth of July Push/Pull Parade, which was canceled this year. The funds cover a large portion of the VFW’s annual operating costs. The private club normally covers the remainder, but its sales are down significantly.

“As a member of the VFW and the site coordinator for Wreaths Across America, I can attest that both are struggling significantly,” Carter said.

In September, the VFW starting selling personalized bricks, which can be sent to the Darien VFW and mounted outside on the property.

Vitti said he just feels “that during a pandemic was not the time to have any sort of increase.”

“We were closed for nearly four months and now our hours of operation are limited. I just think it is selfish of the sState to impose such increase given the situation we are in,” he said.

The VFW serves about 250 to 300 veterans a year. This number includes spouses and children of veterans, as well as anyone else, according to Vanderheyden.

“We welcome everyone to the bar and our grounds, regardless if you served in the military or not,” Vanderheyden said. “In essence, it’s our business like any other bar.” During the warmer weather, the VFW operated its bar through window service.

“The VFW helps anyone that needs help, regardless of where you’re from or who you are. We don’t turn anyone away,” he said.

Regardless of the obstacles in place, Vanderheyden, having served in the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq, said he’s not “letting go of 75 years of history without a fight.”