Mass: Confusion Clouds New Port Law for Lobster Roll Vendor

A Classic Lobster RollA

By Lynne Hendricks | The Daily News of Newburyport

A Classic Lobster Roll

NEWBURYPORT – A new ordinance aimed at restricting the number of vendor carts in downtown Newburyport may not allow Jonathan “J.P.” Arslanian to sell Lobster Rolls in front of the Custom House as he did this past summer.

But Arslanian believes that in reading through the new ordinance, voted by into law the city council ion Jan. 24, he’ll be entitled to sell them somewhere downtown. And despite differing views expressed on that point by Councilor Kathleen O’Connor Ives, who sponsored the new law, Arslanian believes he’s assured a license renewal just like every other transient vendor doing business downtown last year.

“I’m counting on getting a license,” said Arslanian. “That’s what I’m counting on, with the way that ordinance is written.”

Except for festival tents and vending carts that come into town during Yankee Homecoming, the fall festival, and for other special fundraising events downtown, the new ordinance on transient vendors restricts the number of regular streetside vendors to just three. They all must be located on Inn Street. The new law also provides a grandfather clause for those vendors who held valid licenses as of Dec. 31, 2010, but operated outside the official downtown business district as defined by the previous ordinance – within the boundaries of State Street, High Street, Green Street and Merrimac Street.

But in the wake of the ordinance passing, there appears to be some discrepancy over whether Arslanian, who O’Connor Ives said received his license through an unconventional agreement with the Custom House, will be entitled to renewal. While O’Connor Ives said he would only be entitled to apply for a new license if one of the Inn Street vendors gave up their grandfathered license, Arslanian told councilors this week that his license is as valid as the rest, and he’s hoping to be back in business this summer season whether it’s in front of the Custom House or wherever the city deems it appropriate.

“My interpreting of that ordinance is that I have a license that was granted to me by the city of Newburyport by the licensing commission And I should be grandfathered in,” said Arslanian. “I willingly went to that spot at the suggestion of the licensing commission. And that anybody would say that the Custom House or their Board of Directors has authority to grant licenses to vendors is pretty ridiculous.”

Arslanian said he understands councillors were prompted to seek protections for shop and restaurant owners downtown to ensure kiosks don’t take vital business away from those invested heavily in the downtown. But he said he’s not one of those trying to take business from downtown restaurants – on the contrary.

“Being an Executive Chef and being a restaurant chef most of my life, I could certainly understand some local restaurants maybe objecting to me,” said Arslanian. “But if anything, I think with me being a local and being in the position that I was, I acted as a sort of concierge to the city. I can’t tell you how many people that would come up looking for a good sit-down restaurant. I sent hundreds of people down to Starboard Galley and to Michael’s Harborside.”

Being a self-described ‘local boy’, Arslanian has also watched the proceedings in council chambers and cringed at the use of the word “transient vendor” when it’s used to describe his lobster roll stand.

“I take a bit of offense to this term transient vendor, like I follow carnivals and circuses or something like that,” said Arslanian, whose mother Susanne Reines was a longtime merchant in the urban redevelopment of Newburyport’s downtown. For Arslanian, downtown Newburyport was his stomping ground from the early 1970s, when his mother owned the Variety Store on Middle Street, through the 80s and 90s when she opened Atmospheres home goods store on State Street and then Another Atmosphere on Pleasant Street. Having grown up amid the hodge podge of uncared for downtown buildings and knowing many of the players that helped change things to the cityscape we know today, Arslanian can say emphatically that he’s no transient.

“I’m all about what’s good for this city.”

Arslanian said he’ll be going before the Licensing Commission next Wednesday to seek clarification on his situation. And he’s open to going wherever the commission deems appropriate. He’s confident he’ll emerge with a license.

“I’m not exactly sure where I’ll go – either on Inn Street or back in front of the Custom House,” said Arslanian.