Saying it’s a more sensible system, town officials on Tuesday approved new fees for restaurants offering outdoor dining in downtown New Canaan.
The Board of Selectmen also voted in favor of edits to the town’s “Sidewalk Café Guidelines” (see the meeting’s public packet here) by getting rid of a section that says businesses can’t encroach more than seven feet onto the sidewalk—a rule that restaurants with newly wider sidewalks are violating—as well as noting that a four-foot-wide pedestrian pathway must be maintained on the sidewalk as per ADA.
Town Planner Sara Carey, who proposed the changes to the selectmen, noted that currently the town charges a “$300 flat fee regardless of how many seats you had” for outdoor dining.
“I don’t think that’s necessarily how we should operate anymore if we are allowing people to bump out more than seven feet under the sidewalk, so I’ve proposed a sliding scale,” Carey told the selectmen at their regular meeting, held at Town Hall and via videoconference.
Under the new system, those with up to 15 seats will pay $400 per season (April through October), those with 16 to 30 seats $800 and those with 31-plus seats $1,600.
On the whole, the new fees are less than Stamford and are thousands of dollars less than Greenwich. Though Westport only charges a $150 application fee, there’s also a $5,000 deposit “to ensure the removal of the Pop-Up as needed, the restoration of any damage to the roadway, sidewalk or other public property, or the costs resulting from any violations,” under that town’s policy.
First Selectman Dionna Carlson and Selectmen Steve Karl and Amy Murphy Carroll voted 3-0 in favor of the changes.
Carlson noted that the new fees could lead to a more tidy downtown in some cases where restaurants “don’t look at the number of seats.”
“It probably instills some management by the restaurant in how many they put out there,” she said. “If they don’t think they’re going to be able to do that business, then we don’t just have a bunch of tables and chairs outside that are just being un-utilized and people will start to be more thoughtful about what goes out on the sidewalk, which also may be a good thing.”
Karl added that “it’s amazing to be there on a nice day and you see every single seat [taken] at lunchtime.”
The selectmen also asked Public Works Director Tiger Mann for an update on the use of barriers and additional sidewalk “bumpouts” planned for Elm Street.
Mann said the town will go to the Police Commission for approval of outdoor seating expansions for the upcoming season, including the use of planter-style concrete barriers versus the water-filled plastic ones used at first amid the pandemic. (Mann did note that the plastic barriers are getting good use from the town during special events.)
Karl put several questions to Mann regarding bumpouts, future plans and timing.
Mann said the bumpout in front of The Playhouse will end in the area of the future Blackbird restaurant, next door on Elm Street,
“That’s where the bumpout at present will end,” Mann said. “We’re looking to do bumpouts on the southern side in front of the mid-block crosswalk, both sides of that, and then at South and Elm.”
He referred to an area just outside the new Dunkin’ Donuts.
Asked by Karl whether the work would be finished by the “high season” downtown Mann said, “I’d like to do the bumpout work during the summer. And then we’re looking to try to pave that during the summer, and then reinstall the brick crosswalks.”
Utility companies’ work in the area has pushed back the town’s installation, Mann said.
Karl said, “It just seems so long ago where we had everything done and perfect. And we’d love at some point to be able to say, ‘Hey, we’re done and it’s perfect.’ ”
Mann responded, “No one more than me. Trust me, no one more than me.”