Town Council approves outdoor dining, zoning amendment for local restaurants

Outdoor dining may be possible in the summer and fall

Collegian+File+Photo

Collegian File Photo

By Matt Berg, Managing Editor

The Amherst Town Council voted unanimously on Monday to back a proposal which makes it easier for restaurants to temporarily move dining outside in order to abide by statewide health guidelines.

Under the zoning amendment, introduced by Town Manager Paul Bockelman, businesses would forgo the lengthy process that is usually required to make adjustments such as outdoor dining, according to Building Commissioner Robert Morra. Adjustments made to outdoor dining would be temporary, expiring after 180 days.

“Speed, in our minds, is of the essence, because when these businesses open, there’s a very limited seasonal time when they can actually be outside using public spaces,” Bockelman said. “So, that’s why this as an expedited process that narrows the number of people who can weigh in on it.”

Under the new article, businesses would be allowed to expand dining outside to abide by social distancing requirements and minimize the risk of coronavirus transmission, Morra said. Only businesses with private property would be considered for the expansion. Sidewalks, parking lots and other public spaces would not be allowed for dining use.

Unlike typical land use permits, the amendment would not require a public hearing before approval of business applications, Morra said. There would be no public notice, 14-day advertisement or 20-day waiting period at the end for public engagement. Instead, Morra suggested making a decision within 10 days after receiving an application.

Businesses would have to submit an application, which would then be approved by department heads who Bockelman oversees, such as the building commissioner or planning director. In the new process, the planning board would be cut out of the administrative approval.

“We would essentially remove ourselves from the lengthy process following the procedures and get to a decision on the merits of the application quickly,” Morra said. “Decisions would either be approved, approved with condition — which I would expect most would be — or denial, and we would want to do this rapidly.”

The amendment also aims to attract new businesses to Amherst, especially restaurants, Morra said. Businesses which move into Amherst while the zoning amendment is in place would likely be able to keep the otherwise temporary adjustments — an incentive for businesses to fill vacant storefronts in town.

District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont raised concerns about granting new businesses the ability to keep the amendments once they move into a space. All businesses currently in Amherst, she said, would have to use the normal, long process if they want to keep outdoor dining.

“That feels a little bit more problematic to me because of the possibility of some new businesses getting started that would otherwise need a lot more discussion,” DuMont said.

Morra acknowledged her concern, but emphasized the importance of bringing businesses into the downtown area. Some businesses might not be able to reopen once restrictions are lifted due to the financial impact, and allowing new businesses to have the special excemption may help recoup the losses, he said.

“We know how important those spaces being filled are,” Morra said. “We want to encourage a business to take advantage of this expedited service and permitting process and locate here to help recover the downtown.”

The Town Council voted 13-0 to send the proposal to the planning board. The board is expected to review and approve the proposal in early June.

Matt Berg can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @mattberg33.