As part of ongoing efforts to encourage small business, the Chapel Hill Planning Commission considered changes to parts of the town’s sidewalk dining ordinance on March 19.
Instead of solely allowing sidewalk dining in central zoning districts, the new ordinance would allow any approved restaurant to use their sidewalk space. It also made it less restrictive regarding distances to busy roadways. Whereas the previous ordinance banned sidewalk dining within 50 feet of an intersection, the new requirements only ban it within 6 feet of a travel lane.
The proposed changes came in response to concerns by business owners that sidewalk furniture requirements were very restrictive and unclear, and that the application for sidewalk dining was difficult to complete. Town staff have also voiced concerns that the current ordinance did not clarify repercussions for non-compliance and that it was outdated.
The new ordinance aims to solve many of these problems while also making it easier for restaurant owners to utilize outside seating.
Sarah Poulton, downtown special projects manager for the town of Chapel Hill, said the process has been a community effort from both locals and town staff, and that the new ordinance aims to create more opportunities for businesses. Poulton has worked as the project manager for ordinance and application review process.
It’s been a long process, with concerns and input coming in since 2017 along with revisions drafted and tested in 2018. Now an end is in sight if the Town Council approves the changes next month.
John Rees, chairperson of the planning commission, said the commission was overall very positive and excited about the changes.
“The commission was unanimous in endorsing the new sidewalk ordinance,” Rees said. “We have one member of the commission who has some sight impairments, so he was worried about the shrinking of the right-of-way.”
Despite this, Rees said he does not foresee this concern changing the new ordinance. He added that the tables and chairs need to be orderly and out of the way of pedestrians, but said the change should still leave room on sidewalks.
Poulton said they did specify that bus stops must remain clear, so that people waiting don’t have to navigate tables and chairs. She added the town could impose a 6-foot clearance if needed, as opposed to the proposed 5-foot clearance minimum between dining spaces and walkways in the new ordinance.
“There is a clause within the permit that says the town manager can require more clearance, if we get a permit for a restaurant and they say ‘we have 5 feet,’ but we look at it and say we really need 6 feet here for some reason," Poulton said.
In regards to the confusing application process, proposed changes aim to simplify the paperwork for restaurant owners. Instead of a narrative response, owners are now only asked for a simple checklist including basic photos and drawings of the site. The ordinance requirements would also be included on the new application, to make them easier for owners to find and understand.
The Town Council will continue to consider the changes at its April 10 meeting.
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