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outdoor dining

Our Town: Cafe dining expansion may outlast the pandemic – with Town controls

Expanded outdoor dining proved hugely popular during the last year, when the town loosened seating restrictions to help restaurants stay afloat during the pandemic.

The total number of outdoor seats mushroomed from 251 to 605, Zoning Director Wayne Bergman told the Town Council Tuesday. Twenty restaurants expanded al fresco seating under the temporary relief plan.

But once the Covid-19 pandemic recedes, the additional outdoor seats will also go – unless town rules are relaxed to allow the al fresco trend to continue, Bergman said.

In February, the council asked town staff to look at regulations as a first step toward making the al fresco trend permanent. In March, the Planning and Zoning Commission supported the concept, suggesting a year-long test program.

But on Tuesday, council members were having heartburn about possible unwanted consequences. Many town eateries are adjacent to residential buildings or neighborhoods, council members noted. How would music or crowd noise affect residents’ right to peace and quiet during evening hours? Some council members also worried about sidewalk obstructions and traffic congestion that has already worsened this season.

Because of their location and other variables, some restaurants’ outdoor seating affects neighbors more than others, council President Margaret Zeidman said.

“This is going to be difficult,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a cookie-cutter approach.”

Under current rules, restaurants can’t exceed their town-approved seating capacity, which is tied to their size and parking requirements. If they set up additional seats outside, they must reduce the number of indoor seats to remain within their cap. But Zeidman said that can cause their dining rooms to appear empty.

Councilwoman Julie Araskog worried about the long-term impact of allowing the more than 300 additional al fresco seats to remain. “We’ve got to be careful,” she said. “We are too crowded. We are losing our beautiful charm.”

Palm Beach must protect the character of its historic areas, Councilwoman Bobbie Lindsay said.

Zeidman agreed: “This needs to be peaceful, serene, upscale.”

Councilman Ted Cooney said outdoor dining has proven to be a hit.

“I love seeing the energy on the streets,” he said. “Some retail districts that were lifeless over the years have new energy.”

But he said he agreed that it could become too much of a good thing. “We certainly don’t want to be a regional destination,” he said.

Council gave staff guidelines to follow when drafting code amendments to present to the zoning board for review. The council will have final say over any changes.

Staff asked several “threshold” questions and the council answered them.

Should outdoor seating be administratively approved under a conditional-use permit? Or should it only be approved as a “special exception” conditional use by the council?

Council members opted for the special exception procedure, which gives the board greater control.

Second, should a percentage of an eatery’s indoor seating capacity, such as 10 percent, be allowed for outdoor dining, with no change to parking or capacity requirements, and without triggering a council review?

The council rejected the idea of an across-the-board percentage increase.
“One size does not fit all,” Lindsay said.

Should outdoor seating be limited to the restaurant lot, or be allowed to extend into adjoining tenant sidewalk areas?

The council said that, generally, the outdoor seating should be contained within the property, but the rule should be flexible.

Should the Architectural commission be required to approve the aesthetics of the outdoor tables and chairs used in cafe areas? Or should staff make these approvals with the authority to bring questions to the commission for resolution?

The council said that Architectural Commission review would be best.

Finally, should the restaurants be required to bring the outdoor furniture indoors overnight?

Yes, the council said.
“No way do I want to see tables and chairs piled up outside,” Zeidman said. “How would you clean the sidewalks? That’s a terrible look.”