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Sylva expands outdoor seating downtown

Innovation Brewing has turned its onsite parking into an expanded outdoor seating area. Holly Kays photo Innovation Brewing has turned its onsite parking into an expanded outdoor seating area. Holly Kays photo

Pandemic-induced public health rules are severely impacting bottom lines for restaurants nationwide, but members of the Sylva Town Board hope that an effort to expand outdoor seating opportunities downtown will help ease the pain on Main Street. The town has passed two ordinance changes this summer to pave the way for increasing the outdoor table space available to downtown eateries. 

In a unanimous vote July 27, commissioners created a temporary amendment to the zoning ordinance that allows restaurant tables on right-of-way property downtown. Under the temporary rules, businesses can receive temporary zoning permits at no cost to seat guests in previously off-limits areas like sidewalks and parking areas so long as they meet social distancing and capacity restriction requirements. Final approval from the N.C. Department of Transportation is required before restaurants can start placing tables on sidewalks, however. The town is still working with the DOT to gain that approval. 

The ordinance states that a 50 percent reduction in off-street parking is allowed to accommodate outdoor dining, but ADA parking must be maintained, and disturbance of vehicular traffic flow is prohibited. The policy will expire 30 days after Gov. Roy Cooper ends capacity restrictions for indoor restaurant seating. 

“The bottom line is we’re trying to do something that will allow our restaurants to expand their seating, expand their business so it will help them in this economic downturn,” Interim Town Manager Mike Morgan told commissioners July 27.

On Aug. 27, commissioners passed a second ordinance change that outlines some additional rules for sidewalk dining. Like the first, this ordinance will expire 30 days after capacity restrictions for indoor restaurant seating end. 

Under the ordinance, tables and chairs must be at least 6 feet away from any travel lane, be placed so as to leave at least 5 feet of unobstructed sidewalk width and avoid obstructing entrances, exits, driveways, fire hydrants and the like. Sidewalk dining would not be allowed on roadways where the posted speed limit exceeds 45 miles per hour, and restaurants must have adequate liability insurance and agree to hold the DOT and the town harmless in any potential lawsuit originating from sidewalk dining activities. The ordinance also requires restaurants to cease sidewalk dining should the DOT or the town need to access the area for any construction or maintenance project. 

Finally, the ordinance makes it clear that permits will be granted on a case-by-case basis and additional requirements can be imposed on individual businesses if needed. The town also has the right to refuse to issue any requested permit if it concludes the proposed activity cannot be conducted safely. 

“We hope to get something going fairly quickly for our restaurants,” Morgan said in a follow-up interview. 

Several restaurants interested in taking advantage of the new rules have contacted the county, which contracts with the town to provide planning and code enforcement services. Senior Planner John Jelenewski said that White Moon Café has been approved for sidewalk seating and Ilda has been approved to construct an outdoor seating area on its property. Innovation Brewery has already repurposed its onsite parking area for expanded outdoor seating. Several other establishments have made requests or inquiries but are still working through the process. 

To ensure safety for diners, the town is purchasing 25 jersey-style traffic barriers and 25 metal crowd fencing panels to place around those areas. The purchases will be funded using $10,372 of the $411,583 the town received in CARES Act funding. There are strict limits as to what those funds can be used for, but one of the allowed categories is economic support. Morgan believes the barriers fall into that category. 

“This opens up many other doors,” he told the board July 27. “After the pandemic is passed, we will still be able to have the barricades, and (Public Works Director Jake Scott) can use them for other festivals and downtown events that we have. It’s a golden opportunity for us to reuse the barricades.”

Most of Sylva’s CARES Act money — $391,846 — will reimburse the town for dollars it spent on police officer salaries between May and August, meaning that the funds will ultimately roll over to the general fund. An additional $4,737 will go to purchase two laptop computers complete with all the necessary software licenses and hardware, and $4,628 will be used for personal protective equipment in the police department. 

The barriers have been ordered and should arrive soon, Morgan said.

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