ENCINITAS — The City Council rejected an outdoor dining proposal on Nov. 16 and directed the city’s planning and engineering department to make changes in the sidewalk café ordinance.
While the council disagreed on the details of proposal, it was unanimous in its support that downtown restaurants with outdoor tables must keep at least a 5-foot-wide pathway on city sidewalks open at all times to allow pedestrian access.
Last April, the council directed staff to draft a more cohesive policy and permitting process to allow outdoor dining. The council said it supported upholding an existing ban on businesses adding ironwork railings around downtown sidewalk eating areas. However, the members did not support a suggestion that downtown sidewalk tables be permanently fixed in place to prevent them from “creeping” into pedestrian corridors.
City staff suggested ways to improve pedestrian access along the downtown Coast Hwy. 101 corridor that included requiring restaurants to place tables and chairs next to their buildings rather than closer to the street. The city has faced complaints from wheelchair users about the lack of open sidewalk space as more restaurants have moved their diners outside. The city also settled a lawsuit over the issue recently.
The council was unanimous in its support for maintaining a 5-foot pedestrian pathway requirement through outdoor dining areas along the sidewalks of downtown Coast Hwy.
The disagreement came when permitting fees were discussed. So far, 17 downtown restaurants have been granted “encroachment permits,” according to staff reports. The city charges a one-time fee of $290 for permits to use public sidewalk space. However, the staff recommendation was to change it to an annual process with recurring fees.
Councilwoman Kristin Gaspar asked what the annual fee covered. City planner Kerry Kusiak said that the bulk of the fee is used for enforcement and inspection component costs. “In my experience that doesn’t come close to covering it,” he said.
Deputy Mayor Jerome Stocks said he could not support an annual permitting fee process. “I cannot support this,” he said. Councilman Mark Muir and Councilwoman Teresa Barth also thought the annual fee was onerous.
However, Mayor James Bond said the benefit to the restaurant owners was worth the cost of the fee. “We are literally giving the merchants square footage for free,” Bond said. “That’s valuable to them.”
The council was also concerned that the proposal did not allow for exceptions to accommodate businesses outside of the “core” downtown corridor. Anita Stein, manager of Surfdog’s Java Hut urged the council to take into consideration the specifics of each restaurant. She said the laid back atmosphere created in part by the outdoor tables and chairs helps bring in business. Because there is no pull-in parking in front of the building there isn’t a danger to diners who sit at the edge of the sidewalk, she said. “We understand outdoor dining is a privilege and not a right,” she said.
Bart Smith, an Encinitas resident, suggested the policy be site specific, rather than a blanket standardization.
The council echoed their concerns that the “umbrella” policy would result in an unenforceable policy that didn’t relieve pedestrian congestion. “I’m troubled that the ordinance as written isn’t site specific,” Stocks said. “We really shouldn’t go that far,” he said referring to the one-size fits all approach to the issue.
The staff will return with another proposal at a future meeting.