MONROE, CT — Families and friends enjoyed meals outside on warm days last summer, when Monroe’s restaurants were allowed to offer outdoor dining amid the COVID-19 pandemic — and town officials recently relaxed zoning regulations to keep the patios busy every season.
Local eateries are already lining up to take advantage of the flexibility.
David Rodrigues, owner of Bella Rosa Ristorante on Monroe Turnpike recently posted a photo of his restaurant’s patio area on his Facebook page to advertise outdoor dining this spring, and Constantin Crama says the patio for his restaurant, Monroe Social on Main Street, will be installed this week.
First Selectman Ken Kellogg says restaurants are working with Economic Development Coordinator William Holsworth to submit plans for their patios.
“These plans can now be reviewed and approved administratively by staff under minor changes to the site plan process, without going through the commission and without going through the more lengthy and costly plan revision process,” Kellogg told the Town Council at its meeting Monday night.
“I think it’s amazing that they thought about us and this move will help us tremendously,” Crama told The Sun. “I am very happy that I will be able to offer outdoor dining to our amazing customers.”
The town’s efforts to assist restaurants hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic comes at a time when the state of Connecticut is planning to relax restrictions. On May 1, the curfew for restaurants will be moved to midnight and the eight-person per table limit will be lifted — but for outdoors only.
Starting May 19, 2021, all remaining business restrictions will end, though Kellogg said masks will still be required indoors.
Town Councilman Jason Maur asked if the town’s relaxed outdoor dining restrictions will coincide with the end of the state restrictions on May 19. Kellogg said it is already in effect.
Music and movies
At their meeting Thursday, Planning and Zoning commissioners unanimously approved the town’s application for a text amendment for Accessory Outdoor Dining Regulations and Minor Site Plan Applications.
Town Planner Rick Schultz said local zoning regulations for outdoor dining were suspended during the pandemic by the issuance of Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive order, followed by the first selectman’s executive order.
“The suspension allowed local eateries to provide outdoor dining without the restrictive zoning regulations, which prohibit the use of parking, sidewalks and grass areas,” he told the commission Thursday.
“With the executive order coming to an end shortly, the Planning and Zoning Commission decided to be proactive in initiating their own zoning text amendments to allow staff to process permits for both temporary and permanent outside dining,” Schultz explained.
Instead of requiring the Planning and Zoning Commission to review individual site development plan applications, “which are lengthy and cumbersome for our local eateries,” Schultz said land use staff can review applications and give administrative approvals for outdoor dining permits.
Patios will be allowed in areas deemed appropriate by local and state codes.
“Even though you’re delegating this to staff, the zoning department, we will be consulting as we normally would with the town sanitarian, fire marshal and the building official as well,” Schultz told commissioners.
The text amendment also allows eateries to have outdoor entertainment, including music and screens for children’s movies, so long as noise does not make it a nuisance.
Town regulations previously restricted a restaurant’s daily hours of operation to be from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Schultz said that was eliminated, because it was deemed too restrictive. Instead, town businesses will follow the state regulations.
Previously, Monroe’s zoning allowed the size of a patio to be as large as 25 percent of a restaurant’s floor space. That is being waived, because it was deemed too restrictive.
Schultz said Vazzy’s Osteria, which is 2,000 square feet, wants an 800-square-foot patio, or 30 percent of its floor area, and the 25 percent requirement would have limited it to 500-square-feet.
“Vazzy’s has a beautiful design,” Schultz said of the Main Street restaurant’s plan to have a patio with an outdoor fireplace and chimney.
Last Thursday, Schultz assured commissioners the town’s parking regulations and other checks and balances are still in place to put limits on the size of patios. He said parking lots still must be ADA compliant and the circulation must work for patrons, delivery trucks and emergency vehicles.
Schultz said bollards will be put up as a safety measure to prevent vehicles from crashing into the patios. “The staff wants to ensure that public safety is number one,” he said. “It has to be.”
Schultz promised to provide regular updates to the commission, informing members about pending outdoor dining applications and approvals, as well as any issues, such as noise complaints and how problems are being resolved.
Holsworth, who attended last week’s meeting, said he would rather the town try to work with restaurants to resolve any issues first, before anything escalates to the commission.
Though there were some concerns over how everything will work, overall commissioners expressed support for the text amendment before their unanimous vote to approve it.
“I think the safety component has been adequately addressed,” said Robert Westlund, a commissioner, adding he is “all for it.”
“I think the whole year of us being apart with the pandemic has shown that this kind of brings us together in a nice way, the outdoor dining,” said Ryan Condon, the commission secretary. “I know last summer, driving around town at night, seeing people out with their families eating was awesome. It was amazing really. It brought us together and this is something we need to move forward on without a doubt.”