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Bars and nightclubs can now expand their footprint in sidewalk cafes

The city council has voted to change its ordinance and extend outdoor seating options to bars and nightclubs. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — A bylaw limiting service for bars has been amended by the city, allowing alcohol to be consumed outdoors on public roads.

City Council voted unanimously last week to make changes to ordinances expanding dining and outdoor dining options at area establishments.

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The City of Wilmington already allows restaurants downtown in the Central Business District — from 3rd Street to the Cape Fear River and from the Isabel Holmes Bridge to the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge — to serve diners outdoors. However, new updates will now apply to bars and nightclubs and go beyond the current perimeter into the Mixed-Use, Historic District Mixed-Use and Urban Mixed-Use neighborhoods – which includes areas such as Mayfaire and Autumn Hall.

City spokeswoman Jennifer Dandron said the changes were necessitated by the city’s rewrite of its land use planning code last year.

Zoning Administrator Kathryn Thurston told council members currently that only restaurants, with 30% or more of their total sales coming from food, are allowed to operate outdoor restaurants on city-owned sidewalks. town.

Goat and Compass owner Scott Wagner is excited to expand his footprint with customers. He said he was often asked if customers could bring drinks outside his establishment.

“If we’re all being honest, people are already going out with a beer to have a cigarette,” he said. “We tell them not to, but people will do what they do.”

Wagner approached the city as his bar was closed during the pandemic to apply for a permit to put up a bench outside his North Fourth Street bar. The city approved the request, but he hasn’t installed it yet – somewhat by chance as he is now considering benches for two people and a small platform in the middle to place a drink and an ashtray.

He is adamant that the move will encourage people to visit his establishment.

“It’s just his appeal,” Wagner said. “I’m totally excited about it.”

Goat and Compass already has a patio and beer garden located behind the bar. Its indoor and outdoor capacity totals are just under 50. Before the change, the ordinance only allowed outdoor seating on sidewalks to match half of its indoor occupancy. Now, that’s what the fire marshal thinks for sure.

North 4th Street’s Goat & Compass owner Scott Wagner said he was looking forward to taking advantage of the updated order. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

“In some cases, smaller restaurants or diners may have space on that sidewalk that would make sense to operate a sidewalk cafe, but they cannot operate one of significant size because of this restriction,” Thurston told the council. during a meeting. Last week.

Most establishments will average 3 feet wide of space to incorporate outdoor seating per sidewalk width and other guidelines, depending on sidewalk width.

The majority of downtown sidewalks are 10 to 15 feet wide; a minimum clearance of 5 feet for pedestrians is required to meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards. For sidewalks less than 10 feet wide, the minimum pedestrian circulation area is 4 feet.

Thurston said that typically that space is for a curbside “furnishing area” — specifically for trees, trash cans, door swings and parking meters.

Dandron said the updated regulations could apply to alleyways as well as sidewalks, as long as “the dimensional requirements are met”.

City staff will place medallions on the ground indicating the boundary, as they currently do with restaurants.

Although it is recommended to install outdoor furniture near buildings, establishments that do not serve alcoholic beverages have the option of serving along the sidewalk, provided that the minimum walkway is taken into account.

According to ABC law, the service cannot be offered along the sidewalk because alcohol is not allowed to cross a pedestrian zone.

Mayor Pro Tem Margaret Haynes expressed concern that the update conflicts with state law.

“With all due respect, our city attorney has spent an inordinate amount of time in his five years here bringing us into compliance with state law and what you put here is not in compliance. to state law,” Haynes told Thurston. “And I don’t believe we should project that into the future and bring it back if the law changes.”

However, attorney John Joye explained that ABC law supersedes local government ordinances. He added that it would not be a problem to have the order in place, should things change.

“If they serve alcohol, our ordinance wouldn’t prevent them from going out on the sidewalk, but ABC law would,” he said. “If it were ever loose, our order would not be affected.”

Dandron confirmed that the city has not had specific discussions about future ABC laws; however, Joye was likely referring to relaxed restrictions established during pandemic shutdowns.

This allowed the Downtown Business Alliance to launch the Downtown Alive program, which closed roads so that catering companies could set up tables outside in compliance with social distancing requirements. The scheme was popular, with Front Street being converted into a pedestrian corridor from June to November 2020.

The DBA created a task force two years ago made up of downtown restaurateurs, business owners and even city employees in hopes of continuing the program, although nothing has happened. never out.

Also stemming from Covid, as cities across the state implemented similar outdoor dining programs, recent state legislation was passed allowing social neighborhoods. These are designated areas in municipalities that people can walk through freely with open containers, consumed outdoors, on sidewalks, and on the property of businesses that do not have ABC permits.

Last fall, Mayor Bill Saffo expressed interest in reviewing Wilmington’s program before the legislation is passed in September 2021. Staff confirmed to the Port City Daily that it was being considered, but nothing has been forthcoming. do.

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Dandron did not respond to a query from the Port City Daily whether the city is considering the option.

However, she confirmed, the ordinance change is not related to social neighborhoods, although sidewalk cafes are still restricted by ABC regulations.

Haynes asked who would monitor the restrictions, particularly for bars and nightclubs.

“It’s all about complaints,” she said. “It’s just going to be free for all, frankly.”

Thurston said city staff could keep tabs on establishments to make sure the proper regulations are being followed. She also noted the five new alcohol enforcement officers assigned to downtown, specifically focused on alcohol-related offenses.

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Permits cost $250 initially, plus $2.50 per square foot to operate a sidewalk cafe from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. They are renewed on July 1 of each year at $150, plus $1.50 per square foot. Any permit that is refused – for an application that is incomplete or does not meet the guidelines – can be appealed to the city manager and ultimately voted on by council.

Sidewalk furniture – defined by the city as “benches, chairs, planters, structures, tents, and other physical objects placed in the public right-of-way for use by the public, patrons, persons interacting with the public or for purposes of improving the public realm” – may be licensed at $25 and renewed for $10 annually.

The amended ordinance comes into effect immediately. Dandron said the city will send letters to all business owners who have had permits in the past informing them of the changes.


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Richard Dement

The author Richard Dement