July 18, 2012 - Oxford Village officials have no problem with a new downtown restaurant's desire to offer its customers an outdoor dining experience on public property; in fact, they wish to encourage such things.
"I agree that we need outdoor seating. I think it's lovely for the town if it fits in," said village Planning Commissioner Sue Bossardet. "We all want the same thing for Oxford – (for) the downtown to be successful."
However, officials do have a big problem with village Manager Joe Young's handling of the situation, which some claim demonstrated a failure on his part to enforce the relevant local ordinance and follow proper procedure.
"If (Oxford Fire) Chief (Pete) Scholz conducted his policy-making like our village manager is right now, he would maybe allow open storage of gasoline for 30 days until you get your business plan together," said village Planning Commissioner John DuVal.
At issue at the July 10 village council meeting was a request from Lili's Diner (51 S. Washington St.) to have an outdoor seating area on the public sidewalk along the building's east side (facing M-24) and north side (facing the parking lot).
One of the main bones of contention was the fact that the diner's had tables and chairs set up on the village sidewalk since it opened June 12 and had been serving customers there in spite of what the ordinance states.
The zoning ordinance is quite clear that such outdoor cafes and seating areas must meet certain criteria and go before both the planning commission and village council for consideration and approval.
Lili's Diner did not follow this procedure prior to setting up its outdoor seating area.
"They do not have approval yet, yet those tables are out there and have been out there since they opened," said Carol Doehmer, an Oxford Township resident and active member of the Oxford Garden Club.
"Why the tables are out there, I don't know because they're not allowed to be out there right now," said Councilman Tony Albensi. "Why that's not being enforced? That's (up) to our manager to answer that question."
"When they opened up this business, they did not anticipate having outdoor seating (for dining)," responded Young. "Originally, they were only going to have the seating out there for public use."
However, Young explained that once the diner opened, it was discovered that customers wanted to be served outside, so, in an effort to accommodate their needs, they were allowed to dine there.
Young noted he explained to Lili's owner that in order to have this outdoor dining area, approval was required from both the village and the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), since it's technically located in the M-24 right-of-way.
After consultation with both MDOT representatives and the village attorney, Young said it was determined that as long as the diner was "in the process of (gaining) compliance," it could keep the tables and chairs out there.
"It wasn't just my decision," he said. "I had input and consultation with professional people."
The manager noted that Lili's submitted an application to the village's planner, McKenna Associates, and a public hearing was scheduled for the July 17 village planning commission meeting.
Given all this, Young indicated he exercised his "discretion" as manager to allow the outdoor seating area to remain and gave the diner "30 days to get things in place."
"No, I didn't run it by the council, which I should have and I apologize for that. But it was nothing intentional," he said.
Scholz indicated to council that Young's explanation was not consistent with his knowledge of the situation.
The chief indicated he was in the diner "numerous times" before it opened and those tables and chairs that ended up outside were in the building "for at least a week" before he did his final inspection. When he told Lili's staff they had to be moved because they were blocking the aisles, Scholz said he was informed they were specifically for outdoor seating.
"So, (for) at least a week, if not longer than that, they had every intention of putting them out on the sidewalk," Scholz said.
This reporter checked with diner owner Nick Lucaj and he indicated his intention for the tables and chairs is for them to be utilized by both paying customers and any members of the public who wish to sit there, much like a park bench.
"Whoever wants to sit (there) is welcome," he said. "I put them there for anybody, not only for my customers. I would not go and tell somebody, 'Hey, you're not my customer, you can't sit there.' I wouldn't do that."
"I really, really put the seats outside for looks – it looks good," Lucaj explained. "Everywhere you go in the world . . . everybody has chairs and tables outside. I spent quite a bit of money (on those). I didn't want to be stingy or buy some cheap stuff. I just want it to look good."
Young's explanation did not satisfy some officials. "To me, it's going backwards," said village President Tom Benner. "They put (the tables and chairs) out there and then started the process . . . To me, it's just been bass-ackwards for the whole process."
"We have rules and regulations, and everybody needs to go by them," Benner said.
Benner noted he wants businesses to succeed, but "why have all these ordinances in place if they're not being followed?"
"There's no reason not to follow the ordinances, they're in black and white. Joe is familiar with them – a lot more than I am," he said. "If people come to him, he's more than willing to bend over backwards to try to help and I give him credit for that. But we still have ordinances. We still have rules and regulations that people have put in place long before this council sat here. This stuff has got to stop."
"I'm getting egg on my face because some people are not doing their job," he added.
DuVal indicated this incident sends the message to local restaurants to go ahead and put their tables and chairs outside, then "hope your village manager gives you 30 days and hopefully, after 30 days, everybody will forget about it and just move on."
"That's exactly what the intent was," he said. "(Lili's) intended to have that business open in early March. I'm sure the tables were bought and paid for by that time."
Bossardet was upset by the fact that, in her opinion, Young's actions created a situation where he's cast as the "good guy," while council and the planning commission are "the bad guys."
"It is not right that council and the planning commission are put in the position (of being the) bad people, complaining about this and saying that it shouldn't have been, when there are written rules, and Joe's aware of them . . . He should be the person that's enforcing those," she said.
Young explained that was not his intent to make himself look good or anyone else look bad. He said he was simply trying to give Lili's a "helping hand . . . because they don't know the process."'
Lucaj admitted he originally was not aware the village had an ordinance governing outdoor seating and that approvals were required. "I really didn't know," he said.
The manager indicated he was also attempting to further the Downtown Development Authority's goal to add more "character and charm" to the district using outdoor seating. "It also slows the traffic (on M-24) down, which is another goal that we're trying to achieve here," Young said.
In the end, Young said because Lili's Diner is going through the process to gain approval for their outdoor seating, he didn't feel it was right to "penalize" them by making them remove the tables and chairs.
"I don't consider it penalizing a business by making them follow the rules," said Councilwoman Maureen Helmuth. "And I think this could have been handled a thousand times better than it was, if those tables and chairs had just been moved the minute they were seen."
Many officials voiced their belief that the tables and chairs should be immediately removed until the diner gains approval.
"I think the tables need to be taken off of the street until the process is completed by the planning commission and by the Department of Transportation," Benner said.
"I think that we all agree that outdoor seating is a lovely, quaint thing and I'm all for it," Bossardet said. "But . . . in the proper order. I want the tables out, period."
To that end, council voted 5-0 to direct Young to have Lili's outdoor furniture removed as soon as possible and direct the diner to continue on through the approval process with the planning commission, whose recommendation must come before council for final approval. The furniture was removed immediately after the July 10 council meeting and is currently being stored inside the old fire hall behind the village offices.
Another aspect that didn't set well with some people was the fact that Young was essentially representing Lili's Diner at the meeting as opposed to the owner or someone else from the business. No one from the diner was at the council meeting.
"It's one thing when the business owner comes in (to) help them through the application process," Helmuth said. "It's another thing to do it for them."
"This has been the third or fourth business that hasn't been able to attend the meeting," she continued. "If they want this to go through, they come (here) or they send a representative. We are not their representative. (Young is) not their representative. (DDA Director Madonna Van Fossen is) not their representative. That's not our job, and if they want this bad enough, they'll show up to the meeting."
Joe Bullen, a former village president and longtime resident, expressed the same concern. He noted how last year, Van Fossen made a presentation on behalf of the Ox Bar & Grill, who wished to have an outdoor dining area in Centennial Park. "She was representing them and she is one of our employees," Bullen said. Now, Young was essentially doing the same thing for Lili's Diner.
"That is absolutely out of order," Bullen said. "The people (who want this) should be standing here where I am, presenting their case. We don't need some of our administrative people doing that. They've got more work than they can handle.
"You, as a council, know that because the work that's being done here is not being taken care of properly. It doesn't take a great mind to understand that."
Lucaj indicated that Young told him it wasn't a requirement for him to be at the July 10 council meeting. "Joe said you can (attend) or you don't have to," he said.
Lucaj noted he'll accept whatever verdict the village gives regarding whether or not he can have outdoor seating.
"It's really up to them," he said. "I'm not going to fight nobody. I'm there to make friends, not to make enemies.
"I really feel bad for Joe (Young) because he was caught in the middle, too," Lucaj added. "I've known Joe for a long time, since Pontiac. He's a nice guy."
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.