No decision on winter outdoor dining in city
By Kevin Elliott
Members of the Birmingham City Commission and Planning Board met on Monday, October 11, for a joint workshop meeting to discuss the future of outdoor dining in the city, and whether some restrictions will be lifted this winter.
Outdoor dining restrictions had been relaxed in Birmingham during state-restrictions on indoor dining. Restrictions were reinstated in July, once the emergency was lifted, despite demand from the public and restaurant owners to allow for an extended season and lax restrictions on seating and placement, including outdoor enclosures. In response, the city commission directed the planning board to develop a new outdoor dining ordinance to meet demands, while maintaining enforceable regulations.
Birmingham Planning Board Chair Scott Clein said at the workshop that the board won’t have an ordinance finished by the time the current outdoor dining season expires on November 15. Businesses may apply for an extended outdoor dining permit, which requires furniture to be brought inside each night, and has more restrictions.
City commission members questioned whether the planning board supports a temporary expansion of outdoor dining regulations for the 2021-2022 season.
“In my opinion, that’s a city commission issue,” Clein answered. “That is a policy decision that you have to make. We will not have an ordinance ready next month. We won’t. That’s not how this city has ever operated, and it’s not in our best interest, I believe, to come up with something that is half-baked that is going to get changed. That’s for you as a city commission to decide. Do you allow them to roll and approve what they have now without bringing things back inside, or not?”
Overall, members of both boards agreed that expanded outdoor dining throughout the year would be beneficial. However, elected officials concurred that outdoor dining shouldn’t include fully enclosed structures that remain in place throughout the year.
Mayor pro tem Therese Longe also said she would like to see an outdoor dining policy that allows year-round dining, but prohibits fully enclosed accessory buildings. Further, she said she supported efforts to retain current bistro requirements. However, she said she is most concerned about what will happen this year when the current outdoor dining season ends.
“I don’t want to see outdoor dining or the existing dining platforms go away on November 15,” Longe said. “Is it possible for us to extend our current rule and roll forward with the current conditions through April 15? We should figure out what we can do by November 15.”
Commissioner Rackeline Hoff noted the expense to business owners to facilitate outdoor dining. She said the city should make sure costs associated with temporary provisions aren’t incurred a second time because of policy changes. Further, she recommended the future ordinance prevent outdoor furniture from encroaching on public sidewalks and property.
Commissioner Clinton Baller recommended the commission address the issue and decide whether an extension of outdoor dining could be granted prior to the November 15 deadline.
Staff reports from the city’s department of public works and fire department recommended against retaining dining decks in the street through the winter, citing concerns about snow removal.
City Manager Tom Markus said while a temporary expansion may be possible, enforcement will be difficult without a set of real regulations. For instance, if wind screens are permitted, it’s likely some restaurants will be on a mission to take permissions a step further.
“The difficult part is the staff interaction when you don’t have a set of rules to follow, and that’s what a temporary (provision) will be,” Markus said. “We know it’s not just going to be windscreens. The public has spoken, and they are cold and want to be outdoors. It’s going to creep, and the amount of mission creep I see out there is a problem… I know you want to go with this temporary route, I’m just saying I know where it’s going to come back to, and you commissioners don’t get to deal with that.”
The discussion ended with no official action.