Operator fined $35k for flouting ban on bars

Project Lifestyle, which runs Witbier Cafe (left), was fined $35,000 yesterday for flouting a ban on bars and pubs in the Kampong Glam conservation area. It is the first such case to be prosecuted in court. The firm had ignored repeated enforcement n
Project Lifestyle, which runs Witbier Cafe (left), was fined $35,000 yesterday for flouting a ban on bars and pubs in the Kampong Glam conservation area. It is the first such case to be prosecuted in court. The firm had ignored repeated enforcement notices to rectify the breach in planning permission.ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN

Change in use of Kampong Glam premises from restaurant to bar was unauthorised

In the first case of its kind, a restaurant operator which flouted a ban on bars and pubs in the Kampong Glam conservation area was yesterday fined $35,000 by the High Court.

Project Lifestyle, which runs Witbier Cafe, was charged with making an unauthorised change in the use of its premises from a restaurant to a bar - the first such case to be prosecuted in court.

The company was fined $20,000 earlier this year by a district judge, but the prosecution appealed for an increase to $50,000.

Witbier Cafe, located on the first storey of a two-storey shophouse in Kandahar Street, opened in July 2011.

The premises are allowed to be used only as a restaurant.

Since September 2005, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) has not allowed the setting up of new pubs, bars and nightclubs in Kandahar Street and certain other roads in Kampong Glam.

In 2012, URA officers raised concerns that Witbier Cafe could be construed as a bar.

Under planning regulations, the primary purpose of a restaurant is the sale of food to be consumed on the premises; the sale of alcoholic drinks is incidental.

The rules state that a bar, on the other hand, is a place where the primary activity is the sale and consumption of alcoholic drinks.

The company then took steps to change the menu and the layout, and the URA took no further action.

The agency even wrote to Project Lifestyle thanking it for its cooperation in reverting Witbier Cafe to the approved use.

It also reminded the company that the premises could not be used for a bar.

But when URA officers dropped in incognito some time between November 2013 and January last year, they found logos and names of alcoholic drinks displayed inside and outside the shop; a layout consisting of a bar counter and several high tables with bar stools; and a "happy hour" for alcoholic drinks prominently advertised.

These changes had been made without permission.

A URA spokesman told The Straits Times that the operator was brought to court because it chose to ignore repeated enforcement notices to rectify the breach in planning permission.

In raising the fine to $35,000 yesterday, Judicial Commissioner See Kee Oon pointed to the company's persistent offending and lack of remorse, as well as the need to disgorge its wrongful profits.

"The background facts strongly suggest a calculated or cynical breach, possibly motivated by the hope that enforcement might not ensue or that any consequent sanctions might be worth their while," said the Judicial Commissioner.

But he did not think a $50,000 fine was warranted, given that there were no structural or physical alterations, nor any change in the appearance of the building.

He also noted that the district judge had already considered the cultural sensitivities, given the cafe's proximity to Malay-Muslim landmarks.

The offence of carrying out unauthorised works in a conservation area carries a fine of up to $200,000. Further fines of up to $10,000 per day can be imposed if a breach continues after conviction.

The URA spokesman said: "Should the operator continue with the unauthorised use, we will not hesitate to take further action."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 26, 2015, with the headline 'Operator fined $35k for flouting ban on bars'. Print Edition | Subscribe