West Hartford restaurants have benefitted from the expedited permitting established by the state, and the Town Council is working on its own new ordinance to streamline the process.
By Ronni Newton
The state Senate on Wednesday unanimously passed a measure extending expanded outdoor dining through the end of April 2023, reducing the red tape for restaurants like the more than 60 in West Hartford that have been utilizing outdoor areas – including parking lots, sidewalks, and other public rights of way – for additional seating.
House Bill 5271, “An Act Concerning The Provision Of Outdoor Food and Beverage Services and Outdoor Displays of Goods,” was approved by the House on March 16, by a vote of 121-21, with all three West Hartford representatives voting in favor of the measure which adds a 13-month extension to a bill passed in 2021 that was due to expire on March 31, 2022.
The bill requires municipalities to allow outdoor dining as an accessory use “as of right,” allows for outdoor dining to extend onto public pathways and parking areas subject to certain requirements, and requires local ordinances to be modified to conform to the Act.
“Outdoor dining has been a lifeline for restaurants during the pandemic, and it allowed people to support their local businesses while reducing their risk of infection,” said state Sen. Derek Slap of West Hartford, following the Senate passage of the measure. “The restaurant industry plays a huge role in our district, especially in West Hartford, and it adds life and community elements to our downtowns. I’m glad it will continue for another year without issue, and next year, towns and cities will be able to choose to continue allowing outdoor dining indefinitely if they so choose.”
“West Hartford’s expanded outdoor dining corrals during the pandemic was recognized by the Connecticut Chapter of the American Planning Association with its Annual Planning Award for ‘Tactical Urbanism,’” Mayor Shari Cantor said during her State of the Town address on March 4.
“We are an envy of places around the state,” she said, with 1,500 outdoor dining seats, 1,000 of which are in the Center, that residents and people from throughout the region have grown to love.
The Town Council’s Community Planning and Economic Development Committee has been working on a new ordinance, which is set for public hearing before the full Council on April 12, which will combine the town’s three existing ordinances related to outdoor dining, and make it an “as of right” accessory use, in compliance with the Act, and subject to administrative approval rather than automatically requiring a hearing.
After the success of outdoor dining in 2020, West Hartford officials began considering an ordinance change in advance of the 2021 season, but a bill passed by the legislature in March 2021, which codified the governor’s previous executive order, allowed for expanded outdoor dining through March 31, 2022. That measure initially made updating the town’s zoning unnecessary until this year, and now will not be needed until May 2023.
The bill also allows the Department of Transportation to expedite its review of requests to close parts of vehicular right-of-ways on state highways for outdoor activities.
Outdoor dining – which has become nearly ubiquitous in West Hartford over the past two decades – continues to be a valuable resource for restaurants that have been hard-hit by the pandemic, and has been a saving grace that has likely kept many afloat over the past two years.
During the spring, summer, and fall of 2020 and then again in 2021, outdoor dining exploded in West Hartford – with “gardens of eating” blooming and flourishing not only in the Center, where the barriers were transformed into public art last year – but other parts of town as well, and the town gaining a reputation as an outdoor dining “mecca.” The prevalence of outdoor dining has helped make West Hartford a destination, and increased foot traffic for other businesses as well.
The Connecticut Restaurant Association has reported that more than 600 restaurants in the state have closed since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
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