The West Hartford Town Council adopted changes to the Outdoor Dining ordinance on Tuesday which simplifies the permitting process, and plans for the deployment of the barriers are being finalized.
By Ronni Newton
This week’s warm and sunny weather has lured many people outside, and restaurants across town have been setting up their patios for al fresco dining. Soon there will be more space to sit outside as restaurants in the West Hartford Center and Blue Back Square will once again be able to expand their outdoor dining capacity in early May.
Permit applications will be available beginning the week of April 17, and the seasonal transformation of the “gardens of eating” will return with the deployment of barriers the week of May 8, according to Economic Development Coordinator Kristen Gorski.
Outdoor dining was one of the silver linings of the pandemic, and one of Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive orders in 2020 simplified the process for restaurants that wanted to have outdoor seating. It was a critical lifeline for restaurants in the days when indoor dining was not yet permitted, and when capacity was still restricted, but the public embraced it, with many dining outdoors even in less-than-perfect weather.
The initial executive order was extended, and later codified. In March 2022, on the sidewalk on Farmington Avenue in West Hartford Center, the governor signed House Bill 5271, “An Act Concerning The Provision Of Outdoor Food and Beverage Services and Outdoor Displays of Goods,” which had received overwhelming approval by the legislature and extended the state’s expanded outdoor dining that would have expired on March 31, 2022 until April 30, 2023.
Public Act 22-1, which takes effect May 1, 2023, extends those provisions and requires municipalities to allow restaurants to implement outdoor dining “as of right,” and expand onto public streets and sidewalks and any lots associated with the restaurant subject to certain provisions. Local ordinances pertaining to outdoor dining are required by the state to conform to PA 22-1.
The Town Council on Tuesday night unanimously adopted changes to West Hartford’s outdoor dining ordinance which brings it into compliance with the state regulations. While the dining corrals are located only in the Center – where there is public space for the expansion – the outdoor dining ordinance applies to restaurants anywhere in town.
Permits must still be obtained, but the measure reduces the red tape that restaurants previously faced to obtain permits to use not just patios, but also parking lots, sidewalks, and other public rights of way – for additional seating. In West Hartford alone, more than 60 restaurants had outdoor dining last year.
The changes to West Hartford’s ordinance has been discussed in depth by the Town Council’s Community Planning and Economic Development Committee over the past several years. Even before the state required it under PA 22-1, the town was working on modifying the ordinances (there were actually three that pertained to outdoor dining) and streamlining the permit process for outdoor dining which had required a public hearing in advance of obtaining a special use permit, but now can be done administratively through site plan approval by the Town Planner’s Office.
The Town Council first adopted an ordinance to permit outdoor dining about 20 years ago. “It’s why have become a regional destination for residents and visitors alike,” Town Manager Rick Ledwith said Tuesday, but until the pandemic, West Hartford’s ordinance allowed outdoor dining only on sidewalks or other space directly adjacent to a restaurant.
While the Town Planning and Zoning Commission, in recommending the ordinance for approval, expressed a desire not to allow advertising on umbrellas, that recommendation was not incorporated and one advertisement per umbrella is permitted. Amplified music in outdoor dining areas is prohibited.
The outdoor dining season runs from April 1 through Nov. 15 in West Hartford according to the provisions of the ordinance. Those dates may have some flexibility, but it’s really intended to avoid furnishings remaining “in storage” outdoors through the winter.
The restaurants were eagerly awaiting the Town Council approval of the new ordinance. “They are anxious especially with weather like this to make sure they are enjoying whatever nice weather nature brings us this year,” she said.
Council member Ben Wenograd chairs the Community Planning and Economic Development Committee where they have been talking about the ordinance for quite some time. “We’ve all gotten to enjoy it through COVID,” he said. Among all of the bad things that happened during the pandemic, outdoor dining was one of best things “and I think nobody wants to go back.”
Wenograd said it will be very helpful to have the ordinance in place as the Center’s infrastructure undergoes a transformation that is currently the subject of a project led by Stantec, a consultant the town has employed to assist with the process. Preliminary plans are to greatly expand the width of sidewalks to accommodate dining areas without needing to use portions of of the roadway.
Stantec will be preparing a final report and designs for both LaSalle Road and Farmington Avenue. According to Ledwith, the construction work will likely take place during 2024.
“We took a chance and tried something new during the pandemic … and it’s become a winner,” Minority Leader Mary Fay said Tuesday. West Hartford has. become known for being an outdoor dining destination, “and I think it’s important especially as we are facing potential headwinds with our economy that we still have something we can offer that’s unique and different,” she said, and helps restaurants and small businesses.
“I agree with you so much Ms. Fay because we have become a destination,” Cantor said, and when COVID brought our restaurants to their knees this because critical and town staff pivoted to quickly come up with a creative plan for expanding capacity outdoors that ultimately has served as an example for other towns.
“We were one of the stars if not the star of outdoor dining in the state,” Cantor said, noting that Scott Dolch, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, has said restaurants are so grateful to operate in West Hartford. “I really am grateful to town staff for getting this done again.”
What will outdoor dining look like this year?
Although LaSalle Road has reverted to two-way traffic, that will not prevent the deployment of barriers into what is currently being used as parking in order to build outdoor dining corrals.
“For this season, the plans for expanded areas will remain mostly the same as last year,” Gorski said in an email to area restaurants announcing the return of outdoor dining. There’s no estimate yet of how many seats will be added because the application process is just beginning, she said, but throughout town last year there were close to 1,000 outdoor seats in the Center and Blue Back Square.
“Currently, the Town is tentatively planning to deploy expanded outdoor dining barriers the week of May 8 in advance of the Mother’s Day holiday weekend,” Gorski’s letter to restaurants said. That date is dependent on Public Works completing the trimming of trees in the sidewalk areas where the dining will be located – an important project from a safety perspective.
There will be 24 concrete barriers deployed in nine different areas, as well as some plastic barriers. The most significant changes in the preliminary plans, copies of which have been provided, are that Zohara will not have expanded outdoor dining along Farmington Avenue this year, and Blue Elephant Trail will not have a corral on South Main Street.
Town Engineer Greg Sommer said the dining corrals will utilize a total of 48 parking spaces this year: 32 spaces on LaSalle Road, 12 on Farmington Avenue, and four on Memorial Road.
The town will once again be working with the West Hartford Art League for the creation of ArtBarrier murals once the barriers are deployed. This form of public art has been very well-received by the community and allows the barriers to not just provide safety for patrons, but also adds beauty to the streetscape.
A call for artists has been issued and details about how to apply can be found on the West Hartford Art League website. Paint dates will be announced, and will likely take place in late May.
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