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Rocco's owner accuses Shandaken ZEO of groping waitresses -- and unfairly singling out his business
By Lissa Harris
9/21/12 - 3:35 pm
9/21/12 - 3:35 pm
Above: Rocco's owner Erik Risher in front of the restaurant in May, shortly after Rocco's opened its doors. Photo by Julia Reischel. For more photos of Rocco's, see our Flickr album.
Rocco's Speakeasy, a steakhouse and bar on Route 28 in Shandaken, has only been open for five months. But already, Erik Risher's restaurant is making headlines -- for a very public spat with Shandaken's zoning enforcement officer, Richard Stokes.
On September 10, Risher paid a visit to the regular monthly meeting of the Shandaken town board with some explosive allegations. According to Risher, Stokes was drinking in his restaurant on April 21, the night it opened, and began forcibly groping several waitresses.
Since then, Risher claimed, Stokes had singled out Rocco's for enforcement -- approving a building plan only to deny it two weeks later, and bringing county health inspectors by for surprise visits. Here is Risher's account, taken from the town meeting minutes (posted on the town website):
Stated that 3 of his waitresses were sexually assaulted when Mr. Stokes was in his bar on opening night a few months ago. “He was very, very intoxicated.” We did not press charges at the time, but due to constant issues with Mr. Stokes – is coming to the Board at this time with his concerns. Mr. Risher stated that he has had 4 months of issues with Mr. Stokes. Stated, “Due to the events of that night, Mr. Stokes has had a vendetta toward him”. “I’ve obtained all permits, taken the legal route, trying to fit in, ...taxpayer.” Mr. Stokes approved his Handicap Ramp – but then 2 weeks later told him it was the wrong pitch and needed to be torn out. “DEC & DEP approved my Patio plans but when I applied to Town for a Building Permit, Mr. Stokes said I needed an Engineer’s Impact Study done, which is very expensive. I gave up on the Patio for this year and it cost me money.” Commented about another issue with Mr. Stokes showing up with Health Dept. Inspector. He asked Mr. Stokes to leave.
“Mr. Stokes, screaming and yelling at me, I have asked him not to come on my property. He said he has a right to come on my property whenever he wants and he wants to see what illegal things I have going on here... Mr. Stokes is a loose cannon, he is hot-headed, he carries a pistol, concerned for my son, who stays on the property, concerned for the safety of my staff.” I had to come here to let you know what is happening. This has become a nightmare for me, and for what? For no reason whatsoever.. now he has a vindictive agenda with us.”
After the meeting, town supervisor Rob Stanley dismissed Risher's charges as a "personal matter," and told the Watershed Post that he had no comment on the spat other than that he did not consider it town business.
"The matters that were brought up by Mr. Risher against Mr. Stokes are a personal matter between he and Mr. Stokes," Stanley said. "It's disheartening to know that a resident felt it necessary to air personal issues at a town board meeting."
But this week, the situtation took a turn for the dramatic, when Stokes was arrested by state police and charged with forcible touching for the incident in question. The Freeman reports:
Stokes, 54, of Pine Hill, was charged by state police on Tuesday in connection with an alleged April 21 incident at Johnny Rocco’s, a new restaurant on state Route 28 in Shandaken. He was scheduled to appear in Shandaken Town Court on Thursday for misdemeanor charge...
...State police Capt. Robert Nuzzo said in an email to the Freeman that the alleged crime by Stokes “did not occur in the performance of his duties.”
Nuzzo also said the charges against Stokes were not filed sooner because it took time to locate and interview witnesses.
At an emergency meeting held on September 13, the town board voted to give Stanley the power to appoint a temporary zoning enforcement officer and building inspector, although the minutes from the meeting do not mention the Rocco's incident:
The Town’s Building & Zoning Officer – Richard Stokes, is out of Town on a Building Dept. Conference & Training Seminar. The Town Board needs to appoint a temporary Inspector to investigate and deal with this matter.
The candidates proposed are former Shandaken ZEO Art Christie, current Middletown ZEO Patrick Davis, and current Olive ZEO Dominic Covello.
Rocco's is not the only local business Stokes has tangled with in his brief tenure as ZEO. In March, Hanover Farms, a farmstand that has been illegally operating in defiance of Shandaken zoning law for years, filed a lawsuit against Stokes and the town after Stokes issued a stop-work order for construction at the farmstand.
In a Woodstock Times story about the Hanover Farms lawsuit, Stokes told reporter Violet Snow that the ZEO job involves a lot of confrontation:
Meanwhile, Stokes said he’s been threatened by Higley. “Al said he’s got a ruthless lawyer who’s going to go after me personally, go after me and my home,” said Stokes. “I will continue to do my job and clean up violations. I’m not going to be intimidated. I will follow the book.”
It’s not the first time Stokes has been threatened, he said. “I’m climbing mountains, chasing loggers. They think they’re above the law — one of them told me his permit was a .30-30 Winchester. He got fined $2000 for logging in the floodplain. He told us he was cleaning up debris, but another logger ratted him out. We counted over 100 trees that were cut and logged for sale.”
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