The city council is poised to end a year of debate tonight and make sidewalk cafes legal in downtown Annapolis.
"Finally, they're coming," said Alderman M. Theresa DeGraff, a longtime proponent of the outdoor cafes. "I think we've done a good job meeting all the concerns that have come up."
The issue remains controversial enough to promise at least one more clash among aldermen as the bill and proposed amendments come before them for votes tonight. Once the bill is passed, downtown restaurant owners will be able to open outdoor cafes without first seeking a public hearing or city council approval.
"I think that's bad government," said Alderman Louise Hammond, who represents the downtown district. "We're left with no public input."
Restaurant owners need only fill out an application, pay a $300 fee and sign an agreement that holds the city harmless for any damage sustained on the city sidewalk. The owners do not need to sign a lease agreement or amend their conditional use permits.
Residents who oppose the bill say it sets a dangerous precedent by allowing changes to the look and style of downtown Annapolis without first requiring a public hearing. If the council allows sidewalk cafes without case-by-case review, they ask, will it do the same for rooftop dining and nightclubs?
"If the city council won't hear it, then nobody hears it," said W. Minor Carter, who lives just outside the historic district. "When you have something as culturally and aesthetically attractive as downtown Annapolis, and the council allows people unfettered reign as to what goes on down there, then it is abdicating its responsibility."
The bill does set some guidelines for cafe operations. Cafes must close by 11 p.m., allow at least 6 feet of sidewalk space for pedestrians and remove chairs at closing time to prevent outdoor loitering. The bill gives the Historic District Commission the option of setting guidelines for outdoor furniture in keeping with the colonial-style streetscape.
Most downtown restaurants started running outdoor cafes after the council gave the establishments temporary approval last month. Some restaurant staffers say that until the recent cold weather, the cafes routinely doubled business.
At a public hearing earlier this month, all 17 people who testified urged the council to make sidewalk cafes legal on a permanent basis. Several preservationists urged tighter controls to ensure that the cafes conform to city's historic character.
Donna Ware, who heads the city's Historic District Commission, wants the panel to create lists of acceptable outdoor furnishings, such as selections of different chairs or tables, from which each business owner could choose.
Some downtown residents are worried that despite the public hearing, the legislation will be so heavily amended it will look foreign to the people who tried to shape it through their testimony.
"How much has to be changed until it's a new bill altogether?" asked historic district resident Tom Davies. "If the bill is significantly altered, it [should] go through the public hearing process again."
City aldermen say only so much public input can be taken before government stops discussion and takes action. Public debate on sidewalk cafes has been going on since last fall. "The opponents of sidewalk cafes have to face the fact that the inevitable will happen Monday night," said Alderman Carl O. Snowden.
The council meets at City Hall at 7 p.m.