Mark McDermott

Upstairs outdoor dining guidelines okayed

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The Strand House’s second-story outdoor dining. Photo by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com)

by Mark McDermott

The City Council last week approved new guidelines intended to restrict second-story outdoor dining downtown. Though not yet formalized, at the council’s direction city staff will prepare an ordinance that would not allow second-story outdoor dining that faces residential uses or on a balcony over a public right-of-way. Restaurants seeking to add second story outdoor dining will also be required to do an acoustical study as part of a Conditional Use Permit process.

But the new restrictions drew the ire of downtown residents who sought and appeared to have won an outright ban on second-story outdoor dining prior to the intercession of the California Coastal Commission last year.

Currently, there are no restrictions on second-story outdoor dining. But a ban was part of the city’s Downtown Specific Plan, which included several measures intended to preserve the small town charm of the city’s downtown area and developed after dozens of meetings with residents over the course of three years. The Council adopted that plan in 2016, but it required Coastal Commission approval to go into effect. After two years in limbo, the Commission last August finally ruled on the Specific Plan, and struck down 27 of its elements, including a ban on short-term rentals and the ban on second story outdoor dining.

The council was able to implement most of the measures outside the confines of a Specific Plan, such as disallowing any new office uses at street level on either of downtown’s main thoroughfares and limiting the size of retail stores. But the council revisited both the rental and dining bans; the Coastal Commission, a state agency tasked with maintaining public access to coastal areas, has final say on matters involving visitor use. A loosening of the short term rental ban the Council approved citywide two years ago is underway and will likely allow such rentals along commercial corridors.

At its Jan. 2 meeting, the council addressed the dining issue, deciding to add restrictions but falling short of an outright ban. Most residents who spoke at the meeting were unhappy the issue was back on the table.

“Remember, we had a two-year process for the Downtown Specific Plan,” said resident Suzanne Lerner. “We all agreed: no second-story dining. It was overwhelming —  everybody did not want that…I thought I lived in a democracy. It’s a small town and we want to be involved and I feel like our voices should count. And it doesn’t seem it is happening.

Martha Adriani said residents shouldn’t be required to have to go through the process of opposing every restaurant application for a second-story outdoor dining CUP.

“I hope we continue to fight for local control, using municipal code and ordinances to protect our beach community,” said Adriani. “The primary reason downtown residents oppose [the proposed guidelines] and were so pleased with the last council’s ban [is so] residents who live in or near downtown wouldn’t have to continue to fight to maintain our quality of life…It’s a huge burden for the residents to have to oppose every use permit that comes before the planning commission and city council.”

Restaurateur Ron Newman argued that the CUP process is burdensome enough to discourage most restaurants from applying for second-story outside dining. He said that allowing more dining options could help local restaurants succeed in a time of great flux and competition in the dining industry.

“We want the same thing as the citizens and the community,” Newman said. “But we also have to look at what’s happening in this whole world right now. You have all these new centers opening up. Part of the things that happen in the centers, they decided they need restaurants because department stores aren’t working and the rest. So you have restaurants which are the draw and retail shops come in. If you want to keep the same small retailers in the city, you need to support the restaurants.”

Mayor Steve Napolitano, who at a previous meeting had suggested “letting the dust” settle for at least a year on this issue, saw no point in adopting guidelines. He cautioned against “layer upon layer” of requirements for second-story outdoor dining that would in effect be a ban and again suggested tabling the issue for a year.

“We have lots of activity here,” he said of the proposed guidelines. “Do we have any real achievement? I don’t see it yet. Again, I think it deserves — sorry folks — further discussion and consideration. That’s why I want to come back a year for it.”

Councilwoman Nancy Hersman agreed that guidelines should not amount to a de facto ban but argued that some further clarification of city policy was necessary.

“The whole point of bringing [the issue] back was that for years the city allowed it,” she said, noting that only one restaurant, the Strand House, built second-story outside dining. “And it was our position that they should at least be allowed but they have to go through a whole lot of steps to get there…to me, a ban is a drastic move that we didn’t need to make at that time.

And this is just reversing that.”

“I wouldn’t be comfortable if we didn’t have guidelines,” said Councilwoman Amy Howorth. “…I think the onus is on the business owners. I do think it’s a lot better business to try to be a good neighbor to the good neighbors in our downtown than to run roughshod over them.”

Councilman Richard Montgomery favored guidelines but said the existing CUP process seemed to have already served as a barrier to such additions.

“The last outdoor application was 10 years ago,” he said. “Strand House was the last. There’s no gold rush of people running down here.”

Councilman David Lesser said the key to effective guidelines was that they balance restaurants’ needs with residents’ needs.

“On the one hand, we as a council want to respect the property rights of the property owners downtown who own restaurants, preserve the vitality of downtown, and protect the downtown residents’ interest,” he said. “Sound travels greater at night.”

The council voted 4-1 to direct staff to come back with simple guidelines that will be administered through a CUP process. The matter will return to council in the coming months.

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