Vienna extends outdoor-dining initiative, but wants public feedback

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The Vienna Town Council was set Nov. 15 to make permanent some temporary outdoor-dining rules that both customers and restaurants have made full use of during the pandemic, but instead went with a temporary extension after some residents expressed reservations about noise impacts.

Council members voted unanimously to extend the current emergency measures, which allow the town manager to issue special permits for outdoor dining, through the end of the year.

The temporary rules, which the Council initially approved in June 2020 and extended multiple times afterward, were set to expire Dec. 7. Because Gov. Northam’s state of emergency expired June 30, the town only may extend the rules another six months through Dec. 31.

Town code usually requires restaurants seeking outdoor dining to obtain a conditional-use permit at a cost of $1,500. The process typically takes about three months and involves a review and recommendation by the town’s Planning Commission and a final decision by the Vienna Board of Zoning Appeals. In addition, off-street parking spaces may not be used for outdoor-dining seating areas.

Those rules were waived under the emergency ordinance that has been in effect for nearly a year and a half and 22 restaurants have received temporary approval for outdoor dining. Thirteen of those restaurants use off-street parking spaces for outdoor dining and town officials have tallied 58 such spaces being used for that purpose.

Vienna officials have proposed, and the Planning Commission unanimously recommended, adoption of a zoning-ordinance text amendment that would permit outdoor dining via a more streamlined administrative process and conditionally allow use of off-street parking spaces for dining.

Restaurants seeking such privileges would need to submit to town officials scale drawings featuring any proposed seating and improvements. There also would be a new set of fees.

But several residents who live on Wilmar Street, N.W., which is exposed to the rear outdoor patios of Bazin’s on Church and Blend 111 restaurants, urged the Council to take additional precautions before enacting the permanent new rules.

While those residents general supported outdoor dining in the town, they said their patience had been sorely tested during the pandemic.

Noise from those two restaurants’ outdoor seating areas, on what formerly was their shared rear parking lot, has been “intrusively loud constant” and sounded like “116 people talking in my back yard,” said Theresa Ayotte, who lives on Wilmar Place.

“The purpose of businesses in town is to support the needs of the residents, not the other way around,” she said. “Residents should not have to pay the price for a business operation.”

Her neighbor, Patricia Mertz Esswein, concurred and said that noise emanating from Bazin’s on Church’s outdoor dining area “sounded like a frat party.”

Indoor dining has resumed at local restaurants, following the initial pandemic shutdown, so revenues from temporary outdoor seating are extra, she said.

“I don’t think residents should be forced to support bonus income for restaurants,” Mertz Esswein said.

The restaurants’ owners said they had not been the subject of noise complaints before and added the temporary outdoor-dining spaces had proved a lifesaver during the pandemic.

Patrick Bazin, who owns Bazin’s on Church, said the restaurant had to cut its staff from 40 to seven employees at the pandemic’s height, but business has recovered sufficiently – thanks in good part to outdoor seating – to allow for a 32-member staff now.

Michael Biddick, owner of Blend 111, said outdoor dining had been a “key lifeline” in the restaurant’s survival during the crisis.

Council members deferred decision on the proposed new permit fees for outdoor dining and will need to readopt the temporary rules again on Dec. 6 in order for them to remain in effect until year’s end.

The Council in coming weeks will discuss possible tweaks to the proposed permanent rules, which could include sound-barrier requirements for restaurants close to residences and an appeals process to resolve conflicts with neighbors.

Town officials also indicated they would be willing to grandfather restaurants’ existing outdoor-dining privileges during the interim between when they seek permits under the new rules, if the Council adopts them.

Council member Ed Somers said he understood residents’ concerns about Bazin’s and Blend 111, and said outdoor dining in their parking lot had not been part of those restaurants’ original business plans.

Somers described himself as a “huge fan” of outdoor dining, however, and said it should be encouraged in every way possible because it “brings a vibrancy to Vienna.”

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