Outdoor Seated In OC Debated

OCEAN CITY – The Planning and Zoning Commission continue to deliberate how far outdoor seating of restaurants can go before it becomes considered indoor dining, which will then require additional parking.

The Planning and Zoning Commission held a public hearing on Tuesday concerning the definition of unenclosed outdoor dining space for restaurants that is included in the code regarding the required amount of parking spaces for an establishment.

Chairperson Pam Buckley explained the public hearing was not an attempt to change any parking requirements for commercial space.

“That is not the purpose of adding the definition of unenclosed outdoor dining,” she said. “We are here to substantiate that definition and make that definition more clear as to the intent the planning commission had when the unenclosed dining area was granted.”

The code states, “restaurant, fast food restaurant, cocktail lounge, tavern or nightclub or other establishment for the consumption of food or beverages on or off the premises: one space per 100 square feet of enclosed gross floor area, minimum of five spaces; the area of outdoor dining (unenclosed) is exempt from parking requirements up to an area equal to the enclosed gross floor area and thereafter is required one space per 200 square feet of unenclosed outdoor dining area in excess of the enclosed gross floor area.”

The consideration on the table was amending the section by adding the following definition of outdoor dining area (unenclosed) as an “accessory area located outside of an enclosed restaurant…that is open to the sky and uncovered by a roof or canopy, except a table may be protected by a temporary removable umbrella no larger than 9 feet in diameter. The area may be partially surrounded on each side by an enclosure no more than 42 inches in height.”

Zoning Administrator Blaine Smith explained prior to 2007 parking for restaurants was based on public floor area and the zoning code, which is still current, by definition of public floor area it exempted an open air patio.

“So when we were calculating parking for restaurants prior to 2007, if there was outside dining area that was totally open unenclosed of any kind, anything open to the sky, was exempt from parking and did not get factored in to the required parking,” he said. “I believe this is why now the definition is being advanced to further define what unenclosed means and that the parking exemption, or waiver, is going back to the same notion that it is totally unenclosed of no enclosure of any kind, this includes not having a roof other than the umbrella.”

The main concern of those restaurant and other establishment owners in attendance had to do with unenclosed outdoor seating not including a roof or canopy.

“What it is about for me … the definition of unenclosed has worked for the last seven years,” Fager’s Island owner John Fager said. “A lot of businesses have developed outdoor dining that is covered in a way that tables and umbrellas are very generous and that’s very nice but if you are going to have a more upscale venue then you really need a hard roof. People are not going to book special events for example with an umbrella; people are not going to be as inclined to come out. It’s just a different situation.”

Fager asked the commission to consider developing the definition in another way that will not exclude roofs in outdoor dining.

“Open unenclosed could be with a roof and 42-inch sides … and if you go beyond that then it is no longer open unenclosed but to not allow a roof- and open to the air does not have to mean open to the sky necessarily,” he said.

He said the code as it stands has been a benefit to the town.

“Now my concern for this town is you’re going to kill outdoor dining other than picnic tables with umbrellas,” Fager said. “You are going to stop outdoor dining because if I want to devote parking spaces because I want to cover my outdoor dining, I’m not going to do it. I am not going to squander a parking space for outdoor dining when I can use it for inside where I can get a really conditioned enclosed space.”

Buckley explained that the last thing the commission wants to do is discourage outdoor dining.

“But at some point you wouldn’t ask us to let somebody open up a 3,000-square-foot eating establishment without requiring some sort of parking,” she said. “That’s why in the last three or four years we tried to tweak this because we’re sitting here looking at all these shopping centers and places that have all this extra parking trying to promote more business…but at some point we need to take care of the bodies in town if they are going to drive a car, they haven’t stopped driving cars yet.”

Buckley explained the concern is about the smaller operations that have more of an impact on the surrounding neighborhoods.

“You cannot continue to move into neighborhoods for your business to take up city parking,” she said. “I don’t disagree that there is going to be some repercussions from any decision but we are still here with a ten mile island that were trying…to make things fit better into what’s left.”

By the end of the public hearing, the commission decided to take more time to deliberate the matter and discuss whether a limitation should be placed on what kind of material can be used to construct outdoor dining.

“We don’t want people to go to the lowest denominator here,” she said. “That’s what we’re trying to prevent.”