WILMINGTON — A regulation has been amended by the city, allowing alcohol to be consumed outdoors on public rights-of-way.
City council unanimously voted last week to make the ordinance change that would permit bars and nightclubs to include sidewalk cafes in front of their establishments.
The City of Wilmington already allows downtown restaurants — with 30% or more total food sales — in the central business district to operate outdoors on city-owned sidewalks. It’s applicable in the central business district, from 3rd Street to the Cape Fear River and the Isabel Holmes Bridge to the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.
However, new updates also include going beyond CBD into districts zoned mixed-used, historic district mixed-use, and urban mixed-use — which includes areas such as Mayfaire and Autumn Hall.
City spokesperson Jennifer Dandron explained the changes were necessitated by the city’s rewrite of its land development code last year.
Goat and Compass owner Scott Wagner is enthusiastic about the new prospect. He said he is often asked whether patrons can carry drinks out front of his Brooklyn Arts District establishment.
“If we’re all being honest, people already go out there with a beer to smoke a cigarette,” he said. “We tell them not to, but people will do what they do.”
Wagner approached the city during pandemic shutdowns about applying for a permit to install a bench in front of his North Fourth Street bar. The city approved the request, but he has yet to install it — somewhat serendipitous now, as he envisions doing more than normally planned.
Two-person benches and a small platform in the middle will suit outside gatherers who want a place put a drink and use an ashtray. Wagner said the move will encourage people to visit his establishment, as passersby see people mingling streetside.
“It’s just the attractiveness of it,” Wagner said. “I’m totally excited about that.”
Goat and Compass already has a patio and beer garden located behind the bar. Its indoor and outdoor capacity totals are just under 50. Before the change, the ordinance only allowed outdoor seating on sidewalks to equate half of its indoor occupancy. Now it’s what the fire marshal deems safe, meaning the only thing they will be responsible for is ensuring sidewalk cafes do not block any fire service features, or egress paths.
“In some instances, small restaurants or eateries may have some space on that sidewalk that would be logical to operate a sidewalk café, but they’re unable to operate one of a meaningful size due to this restriction,” zoning administrator Kathryn Thurston told council at the meeting last week.
Most establishments will have on average a 3-foot space to incorporate outdoor seating per sidewalk width and other guidelines.
The majority of downtown sidewalks range from 10-to-15-feet wide; a 5-foot minimum clearance for pedestrians is required to meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards. For sidewalks less than 10 feet wide, the minimum area for passersby to walk is 4 feet.
Thurston said, generally, this space is for a curb “furnishing zone” — specifically for trees, trash cans, door swings and parking meters.
Dandron said the updated regulations could apply to alleyways as well, as long as “the dimensional requirements are satisfied.”
City staff will place medallions on the ground denoting the boundary, similar to what is in place with restaurants.
While it is recommended outdoor furnishings are set up near the buildings, establishments not serving alcoholic beverages have the option to serve along the curb, as long as the minimum walkway is taken into account.
Per ABC law, service cannot be offered along the curb as alcohol isn’t allowed to pass through a pedestrian zone. Mayor Pro Tem Margaret Haynes expressed concern about the ordinance update conflicting with state statute.
“With all due respect, our city attorney has spent an enormous amount of time with his five years here bringing us in compliance with state law and what you’re putting here does not comply with state law,” Haynes said to Thurston. “And I don’t believe we should project that into the future and bring that back if the law changes.”
However, attorney John Joye explained ABC law supersedes local government ordinances. He added it wouldn’t be an issue to have the ordinance in place, if things were to change.
“If they serve alcohol, our ordinance would not prevent them from going out to the curb, but ABC law would,” he said. “If it was ever loosened, our ordinance wouldn’t be affected by it.”
Dandron confirmed the city has not been in talks about changes coming to ABC laws; however, she said Joye — who attended his final city meeting last week before moving to Charlotte — was likely referring to the loosened restrictions established during pandemic shutdowns.
It allowed the Downtown Business Alliance to launch a Downtown Alive dining program, which closed roads so food service businesses could set up tables outdoors amid social-distancing requirements. The program was popular, with Front Street converting to a pedestrian corridor from June through November 2020.
The DBA created a task force of downtown restaurateurs, business owners and even city staff two years ago in hopes of continuing the program, though nothing ever came of it.
Also spun from Covid, as cities across the state implemented similar outdoor dining programs, recent state legislation passed allowing for social districts. The districts consist of designated areas in municipalities for people to freely traverse with open containers and consume outdoors on sidewalks and on the property of businesses that do not have ABC permits.
Mayor Bill Saffo expressed interest last fall in looking into the program for Wilmington. Staff confirmed to Port City Daily it is still being considered, yet nothing has come of the move.
Though sidewalk cafes are still limited per ABC regulations, Haynes questioned who would be monitoring the restrictions for bars and nightclubs.
“It’s all complaint-oriented,” she said. “That’s just going to be a free-for-all, frankly.”
Thurston said city staff could keep an eye on the establishments to ensure proper regulations are being followed. She also noted the five new Alcohol Law Enforcement officers assigned to downtown, specifically focused on alcohol-related violations.
Permits to operate a sidewalk cafe from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. cost $250 initially, plus $2.50 per square foot. They are renewed annually on July 1 at $150, plus $1.50 per square foot. Any denied permit — for an incomplete application or one that doesn’t adhere to the guidelines — can be appealed to the city manager and ultimately voted on by council.
Sidewalk furniture can be permitted at $25 and renewed for $10 annually.
The amended ordinance is effective now. Dandron said the city will be sending letters to all business owners who have had permits in the past to make them aware of changes.
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