Fairfax County set to permanently allow outdoor dining — with a few new rules

Outdoor dining became a thing during the COVID-19 pandemic — Fairfax County, Virginia is set to make eating and drinking outside of a restaurant, bar, brewery or vineyard a permanent possibility.

A proposed zoning ordinance amendment would automatically allow food and drink businesses to set up temporary seating areas. A planning commission public hearing is set for Jan. 10, and the Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on Feb. 6.

“Outdoor dining can significantly improve the pedestrian experience throughout the County,” according to a staff report. “By activating the street-level pedestrian environment, it can increase vibrancy and make commercial areas more social and active.”

The plan would largely extend outdoor dining provisions that the county — and most of the region — adopted to allow food and drink businesses to consider other ways of staying in business, when indoor dining wasn’t allowed. The county’s COVID-19 emergency declaration ended March 1, 2023.

Under the proposed amendment, businesses would be able to set up seating areas, by moving tables, chairs and stools into place, on a daily basis. If a business wanted to install permanent outdoor structures, it would have to get approval of a site plan and/or a building permit.

To use a parking lot as a dining area would require an administrative permit issued by the county’s zoning administrator.

If the new rules are codified, the outdoor areas must be on impervious surfaces, like a patio or sidewalk. “To avoid conflicts with parked vehicles, the amendment proposes a requirement that the outdoor dining area be clearly marked and separated from any parked vehicles,” according to the staff report.

In addition, “it is recommended that ropes, bollards, planters and other objects be used to delineate the outdoor dining area and provide safety and adequate clearance for pedestrian access.”

Under the proposal, the size of the accessory outdoor dining area would be limited to 50% of the indoor dining floor area of the establishment. Since some food service businesses only have a few tables, the staff report suggests the Board of Supervisors consider allowing a minimum of 250 square feet for outdoor dining areas.

Any outdoor dining use would be subject to the County’s Noise Ordinance. Since some businesses stay open until 2 a.m., the staff recommends the Board consider prohibiting “outdoor dining before 7 a.m. or after 10 p.m. if the outdoor dining area is located directly adjacent to or abutting single-family developments.”

While the staff recommends the amendment become effective immediately upon adoption, it proposes a grace period to allow businesses to become compliant with the new requirements by April 30, 2024.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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