Our Town with William Kelly: May 24, 2021

William Kelly  |  Our Town  |  May 24, 2021

New rules taking shape to control demand for more outdoor dining

The town is developing a new ordinance to handle a potential flood of restaurant applications for permanent outdoor dining seats.

The dining establishments are allowed outdoor seating under a temporary waiver granted by the Town Council during the Covid-19 pandemic emergency. But, with the pandemic fading, that approval will end at some point, town officials say.

The Planning and Zoning Commission embraced on Friday a staff plan to replace old restrictions against outdoor seating with new guidelines intended to be more flexible.

If the council approves the concept next month, it will be drafted into ordinance form so the council can legally adopt it, Zoning Manager Paul Castro said.

The outdoor dining has proven to be popular with restaurant operators and customers. Zoning Chairman Michael Ainslie said he foresees a “flood” of applications for more outdoor seats once the temporary waiver is removed.

Ainslie said he doesn’t want to see a lengthy gap between the end of the pandemic-related waiver and the introduction of the new outdoor seating ordinance.

“It would be unfortunate if suddenly the outdoor seating goes away,” he said.

Castro said the restaurants are free to apply to the council for permanent outdoor seating at any time. The council could approve their application and impose the same conditions that are being contemplated for the new ordinance, according to Castro and council President Margaret Zeidman.

Outdoor seating proved to be a lifeline for the town’s restaurants during the pandemic, when social distancing restrictions drastically reduced the number of indoor seats available to customers.

Council members and zoning commissioners have said it’s clear that the public appetite for cafe-style seating remains.

But the council has concerns about noise, public access and safety on the sidewalks in areas where people are dining, and aesthetics.

Under the old rules, restaurants weren’t allowed outdoor seating unless that was specifically approved by the council. The idea now is to make the cafe seating more widely accessible.

“The intent was to make it more flexible,” Castro said.
But he said the council is concerned about protecting neighbors from being disturbed by noise from restaurants that are in residential areas.

The new ordinance would make outdoor seating a “special exception,” or conditional use, under the zoning code, he said. That means it would not be allowed “by right,” but only if certain standards were met.

A restaurant’s overall seating capacity would not be allowed to increase. If it is allowed to set up seats outdoors, it would be required to reduce the number of indoor seats by the same number, Castro said.

Outdoor seating would fall under a town permit that would have to be renewed each year by town staff to ensure the applicant is complying with the approval conditions, he said.

The applicants would be required to provide the town with a seating plan, and outdoor seats would be kept within or along the boundaries of the property.

If the seating is permitted on an adjacent sidewalk, the applicant would be required to post a $1,000 deposit in case of damage to the sidewalk, Castro said.

Applicants also would be required to provide insurance to protect the town or, in the case of a state right of way, the Florida Department of Transportation, from liability in the case of an injury, Castro said.

Outdoor furniture would not be allowed to be left out on the sidewalks overnight.

Commissioner Jorge Sanchez said he’s concerned about having a smooth transition from the temporary outdoor dining approvals to permanent approvals under the new ordinance.

Sanchez said he liked the idea of administrative permit renewals going forward. “This is a gift that Covid has brought to us,” he said of the cafe dining.

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