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Sebastopol denies alcohol license to restaurateur Lowell Sheldon accused of sexual harassment

The city’s planning director cites Lowell Sheldon’s history of inappropriate workplace behavior and other issues in denying the permit.|

Sebastopol’s planning department has rejected a proposal for an alcohol transfer and use permit submitted by Lowell Sheldon, a restaurateur accused last year of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior by a dozen former employees.

Sheldon, who is appealing the decision to the city’s planning commission, is seeking to open what he says is a “Georgian cuisine” restaurant at 7233 Healdsburg Ave., the former location of Peking Chef.

Planning Director Kari Svanstrom said the alcohol license was denied for two reasons: first, a protest letter submitted by several individuals who cited “a history of inappropriate behavior in the workplace”; second, the proposed use at the new establishment, Piala Georgian Cuisine, is not a restaurant but a bar.

“We did receive a letter of protest from some members of the public — I basically denied it on the basis of the content of (the letter),” Svanstrom said.

The letter, sent April 19 and signed by 18 individuals, including women who have accused Sheldon of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior, cited numerous articles published last fall detailing the allegations of sexual harassment over the course of several years.

The allegations first came to light in the San Francisco Chronicle and the North Bay Bohemian in late September 2021. A dozen women accused Sheldon of repeated instances of sexual harassment, assault and other inappropriate behavior. The letter stated that much of that behavior, which included unwanted touching and inappropriate comments, was part of a sexualized atmosphere fueled by drugs and alcohol after work shifts.

“Lowell Sheldon has shown repeatedly that he lacks the professional and moral character to be allowed to operate an alcohol-related business,” the letter states. “Moreover, his repeated pattern of sexual misconduct and harassment of employees, including serving alcohol to underage employees, demonstrates that he is a threat to community safety.”

Sheldon, who admits to behaving inappropriately with some of his former employees, said this week he’s a changed person and deserves another chance. He insists that he’s undertaken significant work, including three years of training related to sexual harassment in the workplace.

Sheldon said he and his two partners in the venture have addressed the city’s concern that Piala, as described in the initial application, is a bar not a restaurant. He said his appeal of the planning director’s denial includes a more complete food menu and a clearer description of the restaurant’s concept.

In response to the planning director’s denial based on the harassment issues, Sheldon is attempting to rally support through a letter-writing campaign. He said he’s received 50 letters of support and expects 50 or so more in time for the appeal hearing before the planning commission, which has yet to be scheduled.

In an email letter to “Friends and Sebastobol Community,” Sheldon stated that the new restaurant will be “operated by Jeff Berlin and Irma Hernandez,” who will also be “trained in all matters of sexual harassment prevention.”

In his appeal for support and in an interview with The Press Democrat, Sheldon admitted to behavior that made people feel uncomfortable and “mixing of my personal life with my business.” He continues to deny, however, that the behavior constituted sexual harassment or assault.

In his appeal for support, Sheldon said his role in the Piala project, “has been to execute build-out and design of the concept. I am not an operational partner.”

He adds that he has learned from his mistakes and should be given the opportunity to remain in the community.

However, those who have accused Sheldon of sexual harassment say they’re not convinced and continue to raise concerns about his character.

One former employee who signed the protest letter declined to comment Friday, saying that she and other survivors feel the letter speaks for itself.

It states that Sheldon’s “repeated pattern of sexual misconduct and harassment of employees, including serving alcohol to underage employees, demonstrates that he is a threat to community safety.”

The letter points to a Change.org petition, currently signed by 734 people, that asks Sheldon be removed from another project, the proposed Freestone Hotel project, and that he not be granted an alcohol license for future endeavors because his previous behavior was partly fueled by alcohol and drugs.

Svanstrom, the planning director, said this week Sheldon’s appeal has yet to be scheduled for a hearing before the planning commission.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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