December 05, 2012 - There seems to be a rather large number of folks in Oxford who are under the impression that outdoor seating is not allowed in front of downtown restaurants.
Well, it's simply not true, and village officials want people to know it.
"There's some requirements they may have to meet, but they're all allowed to do it if they meet those requirements," explained Councilwoman Maureen Helmuth, who also serves on the planning commission.
At last week's village meeting, council received a petition signed by folks who would "like to see outside seating for all downtown restaurants . . . in front of the businesses."
It was signed by 154 people, most of which indicated they were Oxford residents. Some signatures were from people residing in Lake Orion, Metamora, Ferndale, Dryden, Lapeer, Auburn Hills, Leonard, Rochester and Ortonville.
But the fact is, outdoor cafes and seating are already allowed if approval is received from both the village planning commission and council.
"Outdoor seating areas may be permitted on private property or on public sidewalks, public plazas, or other similar public areas," according to Section 4.1.45 of the village zoning ordinance. "The outdoor seating shall be immediately adjacent to the associated restaurant or food establishment."
But before that can happen, a restaurant must first submit an application and a site plan to the village for review.
The village's zoning ordinance specifically spells out all the conditions – most of which deal with health, safety and aesthetic issues –that a restaurant must meet in order to have outdoor seating.
It allows for outdoor seating between April 15 and Nov. 1, but it cannot be operated between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.
If the outdoor seating is located on any public property, the restaurant must have at least $500,000 in general liability insurance and the village must be named as co-insured.
If alcohol is served or there is wait staff involved, the outdoor seating area must be enclosed. The zoning ordinance also regulates things such as the appearance of the outdoor area's tables, chairs, trash cans, table umbrellas and planters; mandates that it must be "kept clean (and) litter-free;" prohibits vending machines; and requires the outdoor seating area to leave a minimum of 5 feet of sidewalk along the curb.
Additionally, no outdoor seating area or its associated elements (such as tables and chairs) can be located "closer than 18 feet from the closest through travel lane (for traffic) on Washington Street (M-24)," according to the ordinance.
Village Manager Joe Young explained that since the outdoor seating in front of any downtown eatery along M-24 would be less than 18 feet from the road, all of them would have to obtain a variance from the village's Zoning Board of Appeals allowing it.
A permit from the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) would also be required, Young added.
Apparently, this petition was circulated and submitted to council at the suggestion of Madonna Van Fossen, director of the Downtown Development Authority.
She explained that one of the senior citizens who plays Scrabble on a weekly basis in the village's community room asked her why the outdoor seating in front of Lili's Diner (51 S. Washington St.) was removed several months ago.
"I suggested that she get some signatures together (from) people who would like to have outdoor seating in the community," Van Fossen told council.
Lili's Diner was required by a unanimous vote of council to remove its outdoor seating back in July not because it's prohibited, but because the restaurant never received any village approval for it.
Lili's had been operating an outdoor seating area facing M-24 since it opened June 12, despite the fact it had not followed the proper procedure to do so.
Supposedly, the seating was originally intended for public use, but when it was discovered that the diner's customers wanted to be served their meals outside, Lili's decided to accommodate them and allow dining in that area.
Young noted that Lili's has since received a permit from MDOT, but the diner must still go through the village approval process for outdoor seating.
Village Planning Commissioner Sue Bossardet asked Van Fossen if she explained what happened in Lili's case to the inquiring senior citizen.
Van Fossen indicated she told this person the situation involved "zoning issues."
"I wasn't clear exactly what it was because I wasn't involved with the planning commission and the whole process," she said.
"I'm guessing that (the petition circulators) don't know the procedure . . . so they just went out and did this," Bossardet noted.
Nevertheless, Councilman Dave Bailey appreciated the petition and thanked the circulators and signers for their input.
"It's an impressive statement on the part of the populace," he said.
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.