YOUNTVILLE — A Yountville restaurateur’s clash with the town over the removal of familiar lettering from a historic downtown building has led to an ultimatum – bring back the “MARKET” banner from a long-gone grocery, and do it by Dec. 20.
Despite the possibility of litigation to keep the lettering off Ciccio’s century-old storefront for good, the Town Council unanimously voted Tuesday to require the masthead, which has adorned the façade since its former life as Tonascia Market, to be returned outside the eatery at 6770 Washington St., in Yountville’s Old Town district.
Ciccio founder Frank Altamura was given 30 days to have the six white block letters returned to the red wooden siding of his storefront, which was home to various family-run groceries from the late 1910s to 2000, when it was converted to restaurant use.
The town order came two weeks after Altamura and his Napa-based attorney Kevin Teague sent Yountville a letter challenging the move as a violation of the restaurant owner’s constitutional free-speech and property rights under the First, Fifth and 14th Amendments.
Council members postponed a vote on the matter scheduled for Nov. 7, and on Tuesday met for an hour in closed session before affirming the ruling they had made in October – that Altamura had altered an historic structure without telling town officials, and thus violated permit terms preventing a landmark owner from making changes that “damage its scale and character.”
Even as he conceded Yountville’s right to make and enforce zoning and historic preservation laws, Teague attacked the town order to revive the “MARKET” lettering as “content-based” meddling in Altamura’s right of free speech, as well as an unconstitutional taking of private property.
“While finding that government can have substantial interests in historic resources, we have found no court decision finding the heightened, compelling interests in regulating speech for historic preservation or character purposes,” he wrote to town officials.
Since opening Ciccio five years ago, Altamura has sought to take down the lettering, both to avoid confusing visitors expecting a present-day grocery and to excise what he called an anachronism that may have been added to the landmark as recently as the 1970s.
A 2012 application to eliminate the “MARKET” banner stalled after a deadlocked Town Council vote, despite support from the Napa County Landmarks preservation group. This August, however, Altamura won the support of Yountville’s zoning board for the storefront change, only to see the council vote against him last month.
Tuesday night, Altamura’s argument again fell on deaf ears, as council members criticized him for trying to gain town permission to change the storefront after the fact.
“In my opinion, you blatantly disregarded actions taken by previous councils,” Mayor John Dunbar told Altamura at Town Hall. “You had asked if you could remove the lettering, and we said no, and so you found a different way to do it, several years later.”
“My vote is about the enforcement of the use permit,” said Jeffrey Durham. “It’s not about the historical (character); it’s not about anything else except the use permit.”
Afterward, Teague predicted he and his client would “analyze the resolution and discuss next steps,” but added that a lawsuit remains possible before the town’s Dec. 20 deadline to reverse the changes to the Ciccio building.
“The constitutional issues we raised still stand from our letter,” he told the council.
Tonascia Market, which operated in Yountville from 1916 to 1983, spent most of its existence in the present-day Ciccio space, a rustic affair with a gabled roof, porch and square wooden columns. The building housed other groceries and delis before its conversion first into Gordon’s Café and later Ciccio, an Italian restaurant open only for dinner.