WELLFLEET — The owners of the Copper Swan Inn, who are seeking to evict the Fox & Crow Café from their property, have now accused the café’s owner, Trudy Vermehren, of vandalizing the place with “calamari and other fish … to create a stench” that would delay the owners’ opening of a lounge in the building.
Vermehren’s lawyer, Bruce Bierhans, called the allegations “bizarre” and said his client had done nothing wrong.
Documents filed in Orleans District Court this week reveal how animosity between the owners of the inn, John O’Toole and Grant Hester, and their tenant quickly ratcheted up in the weeks following the signing of a five-year lease in early April.
Accusations are flying in both directions.
O’Toole and Hester own the property at 70 Main St. and operate the inn and the Lounge at the Copper Swan there. They rent restaurant space in a separate building to Vermehren, along with four rooms and two bathrooms in an attached structure to house her employees.
O’Toole and Hester served Vermehren with an eviction notice in mid-July for failure to pay $8,000 toward employee housing rent and $6,000 for the final month’s payment on the five-year lease.
Vermehren filed her own complaint against O’Toole and Hester in district court at about the same time, seeking $200,000 in damages for business losses that she said resulted from the landlords’ breach of the lease, as the Independent reported on July 27.
Attorney Brian Widegren, representing O’Toole and Hester, provided a reporter with a 15-page statement from his clients that he planned to use in his answer to Vermehren’s complaint earlier this week. In it, the property owners accuse Vermehren of committing “numerous acts” to damage their operations.
They said Vermehren asked if she could clear leaves, brush, and debris to install posts marking parking spots in the rear of the parking lot. They expected to see workers with rakes. Instead, they said, she brought in a front-end loader that cut into a hill, removing dirt to create additional parking and causing an erosion problem.
In the vandalism claim, O’Toole and Hester say Vermehren tried to delay the early July opening of the lounge, located in the rear of a building attached to the Fox & Crow. In June, they said, Vermehren entered the lounge and “proceeded to place and/or rub calamari and other fish and shellfish in the rafters and on the pipes to create a stench and attract flies.”
Bierhans responded on Vermehren’s behalf in an email. “I haven’t seen the landlords’ lawyer’s bizarre allegations,” he wrote, “so I can’t comment further other than to say nothing was done by my client to interfere with the opening of a lounge. I would suspect they intend to offer proof to sustain their allegations of ‘Calamari-gate.’ ”
In their statement, O’Toole and Hester said that “when it became apparent” they were not going to get paid what they were owed, “the landlords offered to forgive the amount due and allow the Fox & Crow to continue with summer operations at a reduced rent and conclude their operations of the Fox & Crow in the fall.”
That offer, they said, was declined.
In his answer to the eviction filing, Bierhans said Vermehren had experienced problems with unreliable hot water service for several months that continued into the summer, even though the landlords said the problem had been corrected. Staff housing had not been cleaned, he said, lacked some window screens, and had broken locks and exterior doors that did not latch.
Bierhans had said in an earlier filing that Vermehren was withholding the $8,000 rent payment for the employee housing because many of the unsatisfactory conditions there had not been remedied. A stove had been removed by order of the fire chief earlier in the summer, which caused the employees “considerable stress” because they were no longer able to cook.
Vermehren lost staff because of these conditions, Bierhans said, and had to cut her hours of operation and change to a tavern menu.
O’Toole and Hester said that the lease states Vermehren was renting four bedrooms and two bathrooms for her employees, with no mention of cooking facilities.
Bierhans has requested jury trials on the summary process for eviction as well as in Vermehren’s suit for damages.
A Failed Fire Inspection
The Copper Swan Inn, the employee quarters and Copper Swan lounge, and the Fox & Crow Café all failed an inspection done by the Wellfleet Fire Dept. and state fire marshal’s office on July 19, according to a report released last week.
Fire Chief Richard Pauley, who had been accompanied by Deputy Chief Joseph Cappello in addition to the state officials, said some violations can be easily addressed. O’Toole and Hester have until Sept. 1 to get the work done.
The lack of a heat and smoke detection system linked to a control box and connected to an alarm company will take longer to address. The alarm system must be installed in the lounge, the employee housing above the lounge, the Fox & Crow Café, and the Copper Swan Inn by May 1, 2024.
The area where the Fox & Crow’s workers are housed must be shut down by Sept. 30 and cannot be used in the future unless an alarm system is installed, inspected, and approved, said the fire chief in a letter to the landlords.
Pauley said his biggest immediate concern was the storage of gas-powered engines and propane tanks in the basements of the buildings. He ordered those removed.
Bierhans said in an email that Vermehren had addressed all the infractions in her restaurant, including inspections of the fire extinguishers and their repositioning to meet the required distance from the floor. The gas-powered landscape tool that had been stored near the furnace in the building was removed, he said.
The buildings, which were constructed in the mid-1800s, don’t have to be equipped with sprinkler systems, under state law, unless they undergo renovations that total more than 50 percent of their value, said the fire chief.
The hood with its fire-suppression system over the commercial stove in the kitchen that serves the Lounge at the Copper Swan was in poor shape. “I’m not sure it can be salvaged,” Pauley said. He didn’t believe the commercial stove there had been used for several years.
In addition to lacking a networked fire-detection system, the Copper Swan Inn had several gas-powered engines and propane tanks stored in the basement. Signs indicating exits were missing in some locations, and such signs needed to be illuminated, said the inspection report.
The lounge and upstairs employee quarters did not have enough fire extinguishers.
Interim Building Commissioner Victor Staley was unable to accompany the fire dept. during its inspection to address compliance with building codes. He said last week that he planned to check in with Assistant Health and Conservation Agent Meredith Ballinger to plan a joint inspection.