Fenwick considers outdoor dining seating

Fenwick Island Town Council Member and Charter and Ordinance Review Committee (CORC) Chairman Harry Haon asked his committee members a simple question: Was there a way for the town to allow restaurateur Gabby Mancini to accomplish the business goals he had in mind in asking the town to allow an outside eating area at Mancini’s?

And, just as importantly, was there a way to do so while keeping in mind potential problems it could cause with other restaurant locations and owners in the future?

The strong consensus of the committee was that a solution should be attempted, but opinions varied as to exactly how that solution should be implemented and whether it should be tailored to Mancini’s situation or be more broad-reaching.

In the end, the group came up with a seven-point preliminary plan that they said would allow Mancini to have his outside eating area but minimize the potential for future problems there and elsewhere:

1) Patrons would enter and exit the area from inside the restaurant building;

2) The eating area would close at 11 p.m.;

3) The total patio area would not exceed 600 square feet (existing outside eating areas grandfathered under town code are at or below this size);

4) A 30-foot setback would be required between the rear of the property (and those residential neighbors) and the rear of the patio area;

5) The town will waive parking requirements pertaining the patron seating added on such a patio;

6) The rear of the patio area must be fenced to assure privacy and/or noise reduction for residential neighbors; and

7) The outside eating area would be granted to a business on some sort of a conditional basis — one that could be withdrawn by the town if problems were to develop.

The last issue has been at the heart of not only the discussion of outside eating areas but also a number of requested variances to town code. Put simply, Town Solicitor Tempe Steen has cautioned council members about the town’s ability to grant conditional uses.

Currently, Building Official Patricia Schuchman restricts her rulings to the letter of town code, and requests for variances are handled with the knowledge that the council and Board of Adjustments don’t have a confirmed legal authority to reverse such decisions unless they believe Schuchman has made a mistake in her interpretation of the code or that applying it as written created a hardship for the property owner.

That means Mancini’s request for an outside eating area is, strictly speaking, not possible. Thus the issue moves on to CORC and, eventually, to council consideration — as well as to Steen’s further legal scrutiny, should such a change be put into place.

Some town officials and property owners have emphasized that just such conditional use options are needed if the town wants to preserve its existing business community. Haon argued that conditional uses have been granted by council in the past, but acknowledged that Steen did not firmly support their legality.

As it stands, requests for non-conforming commercial signs, parking variations and other non-conforming uses have led to frustration on the part of both town officials and business owners. Enhancing that frustration is the fact that, in many cases, the requested uses are things that would be considered an improvement by both the officials and the businesspeople — but they’re simply not allowed without a full code change.

If it proceeds to reality, the code change allowing an outside eating area at Mancini’s could be the first in a potential wave of flexibility that has been the clarion call of the town’s Commercial Liaison Committee.

The Italian eatery has been the guinea pig in this case largely due to the particular considerations of the business and its owner. Mancini has been widely described as well-liked in the community. His restaurant is both well-regarded and popular — leading directly to the reason for his request: his patrons overflow into the parking lot while waiting for tables.

Mancini and town officials have expressed concerns about the safety of those patrons while they socialize in the parking lot and other patrons enter and leave in their vehicles. They’ve also expressed concern that the wait for a table could drive patrons to other restaurants outside of town limits. The solution for both problems could come in that outside seating.

Beyond that, Council Member and Commercial Liaison Committee Chairman Chris Clark opined that the outside eating area could, of itself, be a draw for restaurant patrons who might want to eat outside on a balmy summer evening at the beach, thus helping to ensure Mancini’s success and the continued existence of the town’s commercial district.

As discussion commenced council and ommittee member Audrey Serio was quick to ask that committee members not point to Mancini as a singular example in making decisions on the matter, to his detriment or otherwise. The change should be considered in terms of its impact on the town, she said.

Indeed, Haon said he had received an e-mail in comment on the matter, noting that the consideration of the issue was over a single restaurant that could not have such an area under the town’s existing regulations, which the writer said were similar to those in other local towns.

Likewise other committee members questioned whether such an exception should be tailor-made for Mancini, on the basis of his reputation, when less reputable restaurateurs could take advantage of the provision in the future — to the town’s detriment.

That was the origin of the committee’s determination that the option for an outside eating area should be available on a conditional basis. It might be done through an annual renewal process or through other means, but allowing the town the ability to retract permission would be key in ensuring problems were short-lived.

Concerns about the impact on neighboring residential properties were emphasized in the discussion of the issue. Unlike most of the area’s coastal towns, Fenwick Island’s commercial district fronts a single strip along Coastal Highway, with residential properties consistently lining the rears of those properties. Essentially, every commercial property has a residential neighbor (or more than one) at its rear property line.

Those concerns led the committee members to address privacy and noise issues through the location and size parameters they developed, as well as through the 11 p.m. closing time and even fencing requirements.

Those last were left unresolved, as committee members debated exactly where the fence should be located (the rear of the property or around the patio area) and what types of construction would be allowed, with an eye toward controlling noise and/or access to the areas. Such matters are to be worked out as an actual ordinance is developed.

Committee members opted to consider waiving the parking requirements of the additional seating that would be granted for such restaurants, based simply on the fact that parking in the town is currently extremely limited, especially at Mancini’s location.

According to Serio, standalone businesses such as Mancini’s are at a decided disadvantage when compared to similar businesses housed in shopping centers. The evening service hours at Mancini’s, for example easily fill his parking lot. A restaurant in a shopping center nearby could, in contrast, make use of spots left empty by the daytime hours of neighboring stores.

Serio said she felt the patronage of such standalone businesses was necessarily limited, to the level at which potential patrons considered the parking hassle too high to consider eating there. Adding a minimal amount of outside seating wouldn’t really change a given establishment’s effect on the town’s traffic or parking, she said.

Clark noted that his support for Mancini’s request was consistent with his general attitude toward such ideas. He proclaimed his intention to always champion good ideas and concepts that benefit the greater good. And Mancini’s request was just such an idea, he said.

The consensus appeared behind him, with only a single abstention from the committee’s vote to proceed with work on the outside-eating-area option and all others in favor.

Haon’s next question for his committee members was a matter of architecture and aesthetics. He passed around a series of photographs displaying some of the town’s larger homes, as well as some he felt weren’t so aesthetically pleasing.

The question: did the town need to consider a narrower definition of allowable house size on a lot to address complaints that some houses were simply too big for the character of the town?

Serio seemed to hit the nail on the head for most of the committee members, noting that architecture plays a large role in the perception of size in a structure. Haon’s examples characterized that argument, showing larger homes that didn’t present the dramatic appearance of massive size, while some others were smaller and appeared gargantuan.

All of the houses were within the town’s setback restrictions on their given properties, Haon pointed out.

While most committee members were in agreement that good architectural principles could reduce the appearance of size in a large home, most were reluctant to look at architectural restrictions as a method of controlling the town’s overall aesthetic.

Property owners’ rights and the potential impact on the town’s aesthetic of single-family homes were key reasons for that reluctance. Even Haon acknowledged that an architectural review board would be an impossible thing to institute in Fenwick Island at this point in its development.

Clark said he would prefer to tackle the issue in a different way — and one that would place Fenwick Island at the forefront of development issues. He said the criteria for size shouldn’t be setbacks or square footage but rather a form of lot coverage — a measure of how much permeable area was being left open by construction.

Too much impermeable surface was resulting in increasing flooding, Clark said.

The most agreement and enthusiasm was reached on an offshoot topic: the town’s building height limit. Committee members noted that it was calculated from land height and not from the 100-year flood level, keeping homes closer to the ground in an effort to have maximum living space.

In an area prone to flooding, structural dampness and mold, every effort should be made to raise homes above flood levels and out of reach of persistent dampness, they argued. Clark said recent federal flood declarations had, in effect, taken part of property owners’ ability to really use the 30-foot height limit, and he felt the town should give it back.

In the end, the committee’s consensus was the architectural codes in the town weren’t a significant problem that needed to be addressed, while future consideration of the height restriction was left on the table.

Haon also informed committee members that a revision of the proposed dock and boatlift ordinance was to receive a first reading at a May 20 public hearing. The additional revisions are targeted at allowing additional property owners to place a dock or boatlift on their canal-front properties.