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Beach town's ban prompts battle over shave ice

A $3 cup of shave ice is at the center of a dispute in this beach town between street vendors trying to stay in business and town officials who say the vendors cause traffic congestion and increase the potential for accidents.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A $3 cup of shave ice is at the center of a dispute in this beach town between street vendors trying to stay in business and town officials who say the vendors cause traffic congestion and increase the potential for accidents.

George Manko sells Hawaiian shave ice in a private parking lot for beachgoers in Westerly, where celebrities including Taylor Swift and Conan O'Brien have summer homes.

The town recently banned street vendors, except for at festivals and one-time events. Town councilors who supported the ban said they did so because the police chief expressed safety concerns.

Manko continues to serve the treat from his yellow trailer with Hawaiian flowers and a surfing scene painted on it. He believes the councilors do not like the look of street vendors and are trying to turn Westerly into the next Martha's Vineyard.

But despite the presences of Swift and O'Brien in the more affluent sections of Westerly, the part of town where Manko works has small beach cottages for rent and less panache, and Manko doubts it will turn into a glamorous destination.

"It's a blue-collar beach," said Manko, 59, of Groton, Connecticut. "Justin Bieber is not going to move in."

Manko pleaded not guilty in municipal court Thursday to 16 counts of violating the ordinance. He faces up to 30 days in jail and a fine of $500 for each count.

The tip jar at Manko's trailer has a sign saying that proceeds will be used to pay a bail bondsman. Customers who noticed the sign last week asked Manko to explain.

"Wow," said Ben Nigrelli, 19, of Westerly, after hearing about the citation. "I wish the best of luck to you. You've been here forever."

During an afternoon rush, Manko worked alongside his 33-year-old son, George A. Manko. Customers ordered cups of shave ice drizzled with syrup in flavors like blue fruit punch or coconut. While shave ice resembles a snow cone, the ice is finer.

The younger Manko said he relies on his summer earnings at the beach to help pay for his tuition and engineering books at the Harvard Extension School.

"I'm proud of my father," he said. "This is another lesson in standing up for what's right."

More than a dozen people stood in line. Twelve-year-old Hailey Misinonile, of West Haven, Connecticut, had ordered a cup minutes earlier. She returned for a refill and to buy one for her grandmother.

"This is like, my favorite place to go," she said.

Police Chief Edward St. Clair said no one complained to him about Manko. But other vendors have set up in areas they are not supposed to and caused traffic congestion, he added.

While St. Clair was not aware of any accidents resulting from the operations, he said motorists sometimes park in the street to get to them. He feared the problems could have worsened as more vendors flocked to the area to sell to the beach crowds.

There were 10 to 15 street vendors in town before the ordinance passed, he said. Two have challenged the law. Kenneth Adams, who owns the Ocean View Motel, was cited for selling ice cream from a truck on his property. Farmers selling local produce and farmers markets are exempt from the rules.

St. Clair said he supported the ordinance as it was written by town officials because it addresses his concerns, but he was open to other options. The chamber of commerce wanted the council to consider restricting vendors and allowing existing businesses to continue operating.

Council President Diana Serra said the vendors are being controlled, not eliminated, since the town has many events where they can still sell. The look of the vendors was discussed but did not prompt the ordinance, Serra added.

Councilor Andrew Gencarelli said the council also talked about vendors competing with brick and mortar businesses. He said he opposed the ordinance because the council could have addressed any safety or appearance concerns without eliminating businesses.

This is Manko's 11th summer at the beach. Kevin Urbonas, co-owner of a neighboring restaurant, said Manko adds to the area.

Other business owners, however, said it's unfair that they have to use some of their summer profits to pay taxes and insurance fees for their buildings while vendors do not.

Harry Trefes, who owns the Bayview Fun Park, said the property taxes are expensive and there should be controls in place so they are not "overrun by vendors."

Manko said a different location would not be nearly as lucrative. The business is his full-time job during the summer. Last winter he drove a bus.

"I'm not doing anything wrong," Manko said. "I just want to work."

He is due in court again Thursday.