Recent changes to Connecticut statute requires the Town of West Hartford to modify its outdoor dining ordinances, and the Town Council’s Community Planning and Economic Development Committee is discussing changes to be implemented this spring.
By Ronni Newton
Outdoor dining has become nearly ubiquitous in West Hartford, and in the past 20 years since the town began permitting and encouraging it on a large scale, it’s been the key to the success of many local restaurants, not to mention a saving grace during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, and reopening plans were established for businesses, one of the executive orders issued by Gov. Ned Lamont fast-tracked the process for restaurants to create outdoor dining areas, and also permitted towns to allow outdoor dining to expand into parking areas and public rights of way.
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.”
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, and made updating the town’s zoning unnecessary until this year.
Going forward, “An Act Concerning Access to Local Government, The Modernization of Local Government Operations, Regional Councils of Government and the Provision of Outdoor Dining,” (Act) which took effect as of July 1, 2021, 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.
Prior to the start of the outdoor dining season this spring, West Hartford’s Town Council will be considering a change to coordinate the town’s existing ordinances, to modernize and simplify the process for restaurants to create outdoor seating areas, and to also bring the town’s ordinances into compliance with the Act.
“To keep the successful program we have in place, add some tweaks, and make it compliant,” is the goal, Town Planner Todd Dumais told members of the Community Planning and Economic Development Committee during a meeting Wednesday morning.
Dumais said that current ordinances require a special use permit process with a public hearing required, and that has been successfully used by more than 60 restaurants. There is also a seasonal zoning permit for small outdoor seating areas (no more than four tables or 16 seats) that don’t serve alcohol.
Dumais said that another existing ordinance, to allow outdoor dining in a public right of way, was drafted around the time that Blue Back Square was built and was designed to “create a more European environment,” but prior to the pandemic was only used once, by SPoT Coffee.
Committee chair Leon Davidoff said the proposed changes – which eliminate the need for application to the Town Plan and Zoning Commission and instead transfer the authority to the town planner to approve administratively – are a “win-win for our community.”
“[Outdoor dining] has proven to be quite successful and has basically made our community a destination for so many,” Davidoff said.
Initial concerns about the negative impact of outdoor dining have been proven unfounded.
Davidoff also noted that while there was a concern about advertising on umbrellas, as the pandemic went on it became evident that it “was not detrimental to the community.”
Advertising on umbrellas has not previously been permitted under town ordinance – although zoning officials have allowed umbrellas with logos to be used for the past two seasons – and one of the changes Dumais is suggesting is allowing one, monochromatic advertisement on each umbrella side, face, or segment.
Another suggested change removes a provision that prohibits animals, other than service animals, within outdoor dining areas. Health code requirements would still apply.
The proposed ordinance specifies that outdoor dining season will be permitted from April 1 through Nov. 15.
The ordinance changes remove subjectiveness from the application process, Davidoff said, while retaining sufficient enforcement for violations.
“From the point of efficient government I think it makes sense to do this administratively,” Davidoff said.
The town will be considering some type of fee structure for restaurants that expand their outdoor dining areas into parking spaces other than private parking lots, but that discussion is still in its preliminary phase, Town Manager Matt Hart said.
The Community Planning and Economic Development Committee will review the proposed ordinance again at its February meeting, and Davidoff noted that it needs to be brought to the full Council for a vote before outdoor dining areas are deployed this spring.
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