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Outdoor dining, fees at center of heated debate in Plymouth

Posted By: The Detroit News on August 14, 2023.  For more information, please click here to read the source article.

City officials in this quaint western Wayne County community are rethinking a controversial outdoor dining policy after it ignited backlash this summer from local restaurant owners.

In mid-July, an update to the city’s outdoor dining policy was proposed that would have increased fees for outdoor dining areas from $1.50 per square foot to $15 per square foot for the season, a 900% hike. The changes were proposed to address walkable areas and accessibility.

The changes were voted down 6-1 by the City Commission this month after restaurant owners complained about the fee hikes, some threatening to shut down their patios altogether.

“They kind of blind-sided us with this,” said Bill Farwell, the owner of Penn Grill and Bar.  Now, the policy is back before the commission, said Plymouth City Manager Paul Sincock.

“I think there’s some work to do … but again, they don’t have to have anything until next April,” when the outdoor dining season begins, said Sincock.

The City Commission has been considering an update to the outdoor dining policy because of the flexibility that establishments had with outdoor dining during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many restaurants used outdoor dining areas to stay open, he said.

“The rules were in constant flux …. There were a lot of changes being made on a regular basis to what would be allowed and what would not be allowed,” said Sincock.

During the pandemic, he said the commission met with restaurant owners to work on guidelines for the outdoor dining policy. Now it needs to be updated, he said.

The city allows patios over 5,000 square feet on public property without additional parking. Some new establishments added patio space on private property and had to pay to add parking, Sincock said in an administrative recommendation July 12.

“Keeping all these things in balance is the challenge that the City Commission faces when adopting a formal policy that will be in place for years,” he said.

Restaurant owners, meanwhile, say they were willing to pay an increase but not 900%.  Farwell was part of the group of business owners that threatened to shut down outdoor dining areas if the new policy was passed. His restaurant has a 429-square-foot of outdoor dining space. At $1.50 per square foot under the current policy, it costs the bar nearly $700 annually, not including other fees like the application fee.  But under the proposed $15 per square foot for the entire season, which runs 214 days from April to November the city said, the bar would have had to pay nearly $7,000 annually for its outdoor dining area.

“All the bar owners got together, and we told them we would close all our patios down,” said Farwell.

Farwell said another concern is the width of the sidewalks that city officials are considering. He said a 9-foot sidewalk made to have a 6-foot sidewalk to walk could cut an establishment’s patio in half.  Sam Khashan, owner of the Irish pub Sean O’Callaghan’s, said he has a smaller sidewalk and he was only able to sit about eight to 10 people at first. During COVID, the pub had to expand into the street.

“Right now, we’re one of the only ones in the street in Plymouth,” he said. “Some have a natural bumpout, so they don’t need to do it, but they’re still using city property.”

Officials said the city has considered ways to make outdoor dining more effective for patrons and business owners. Sincock said the commission has considered patio platforms, removing and adding bumpouts, additional parking, and new patio bumpouts.

“The City Commission has been working hard to come up with a plan that would give them a five- or seven-year window that we would continue to allow outdoor dining use of public property, use of parking spaces and all of those things,” said Sincock.

Khashan, who has a 525-square-foot outdoor patio, said he hopes the city and restaurants can continue to discuss outdoor dining policy.

“There is nothing official right now, but I think we have a good working relationship with the city,” said Khashan. “I spoke with the mayor, and I spoke with restaurant owners, so I think we are on the right track.”

Owners such as Farwell and Khashan said raising per square footage is not the way to go. Plymouth bars are still planning to close their patios if a large increase is passed.

“It’s not to close to prove a point; it just kind of shows why we won’t be able to afford to do this if it got to that 900% mark,” Khashan said.

Officials said the policy is certain to increase the per-square-footage fee by at least $2-3 per square foot per day.  The deadline to approve a new policy is April.

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