Now that Maryland is permitting outdoor dining with some limitations, members of Westminster’s Economic & Community Development Committee used their Friday meeting to discuss ways city resources could be used to help restaurants expand their outdoor options.
The committee members discussed the quickest process for allowing restaurants to expand outdoor seating to sidewalks and parking spaces. They discussed closing down parts of Main Street for open-air dining space during weekend nights, if businesses express interest.
“I do think we should do everything that we can for these businesses ... A lot of these restaurants that people think are doing well right now with carryout aren’t,” Mayor Joe Dominick said.
He said he understands from talking to owners that alcohol is a moneymaker for many restaurants, but customers tend to only buy one drink if they are getting takeout. The costs of meat have also risen.
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In his latest move to loosen restrictions put in place in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Wednesday announced jurisdictions would be allowed to expand more services, including outdoor dining, beginning 5 p.m. Friday.
In considering any new options, the committee stressed the importance of following health and safety guidelines, as well as making sure accessibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act wasn’t infringed.
Councilman Benjamin Yingling, who chairs the committee, said the committee should pay attention to ideas restaurants themselves put forward.
“I’m not in the restaurant business, so there could be many different ideas they have,” he said.
Council President Gregory Pecoraro asked that the city proactively reach out to each restaurant and communicate guidelines for how to take advantage of what the city is offering, as well as remaining open to their suggestions.
Dominick agreed, and said the information they put out should be as detailed as possible so that when businesses submit a plan, it would be more likely to get approved on the first run.
He said that working to create outdoor dining will make a big difference toward which businesses survive the next six months or a year.
“I think this is maybe the most important thing we’ve done or are tackling since this whole thing started, as a municipality,” he said, in reference to the pandemic.
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Mark Depo, director of community planning and development, said the city had received six emails as of Friday from restaurants seeking to create outdoor seating in new areas. He summarized options for expanding seating out to sidewalks or converting parking spaces.
There is a sidewalk use permit the city already uses for special events. Restaurants would have to submit a sketch of the layout, and the arrangement of tables would have to follow ADA rules so sidewalks are still maneuverable.
For restaurants looking to convert parking spaces to dining space, the planning department would review a simple sketch plan for safety and accessibility.
The process is quick, and “I don’t see it taking too long for us to review it,” Depo said.
In shopping centers, he said, converting parking spaces could be more challenging than for restaurants with city parking or parking on private property. Parking ordinances specify how much parking those centers need to have.
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The committee asked the planning department to look into exceptions to those regulations.
“I think we’re in the place where we’re in really dire times, and we want to support our businesses any way we can,” Yingling said.
All of the committee members expressed strongly that they wanted to waive all administrative fees for these planning reviews.
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The committee will also ask for restaurants whether they would benefit from the city closing down parts of Main Street on certain days to create “pop-up” dining space.
Westminster Police Chief Thomas Ledwell attended the meeting to address safety and traffic concerns of closing the street. “Obviously we do it for special events, so it’s possible,” he said. “We just need to figure out all the considerations.”
These include communicating with fire and rescue services so they can route around closed streets and making sure police are staffed to help direct traffic and avoid congestion. If the area near the intersection with Md. 27 was closed, the State Highway Administration would need to give its approval.
The Economic & Community Development Committee meeting video can be found on the Westminster, MD Facebook page, where it was streamed live Friday.