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Opinions mixed on allowing outdoor cafe on park property

June 15, 2011 - Opinions were mixed during last week's Oxford Village Planning Commission meeting over whether a downtown restaurant should be allowed to use part of Centennial Park as an outdoor cafe for its customers.

"Everyday I can see directly into the park and there's nobody there unless there is a special event," said Anna Taylor, who owns Pink & Charlie and serves on the Downtown Development Authority board. "(The restaurant's) looking to bring people to our community on a daily basis that are going to actually enjoy our downtown."

Planning Commissioner John DuVal called the proposed use "inappropriate."

"The mission, the focus of that property has always been a common area, a common gathering place for various ceremonies," he said. "That's what it was defined as. That's what people have invested in that parcel for."

At issue is the Ox Bar & Grill's request to utilize a 390-square-foot (15-foot-by-26-foot) portion of the park – located on its north side, adjacent to the garden – as a fenced-in outdoor cafe between April 15 and Nov. 1.

The proposed cafe would be located on a section of park land that is currently paved, so no grass, plants or trees would be lost if it was installed.

There is some confusion over some of the proposed cafe's details. Plans submitted show two conflicting drawings. One depicts a 42-inch high fence surrounding five tables with seating for 20 patrons, while the other shows a 3-foot high fence surrounding 9 tables with seating for 30.

DuVal made a motion to deny the request because the proposed use was not appropriate and the property in question should remain part of the park. It failed in a 3-3 vote.

The planning commission then voted 4-2 to set aside the request until the DDA board's had a chance to review it, a plan drawn to scale has been submitted and all of the village planner's concerns have been addressed.

Back in May 2009, the village council voted 3-2 to allow four downtown eateries, including the Ox Bar & Grill, to set up outdoor cafes on public property located next to their buildings. However, at the time, village officials noted the cafe plans must be in compliance with the zoning ordinance, gain approval from the village planning commission and state Liquor Control Commission, and be brought back to council for final approval.

There is some confusion over council's 2009 approval of the outdoor-cafe-on-public-property concept because the meeting minutes from back then erroneously stated the motion was for "private property."

At last week's planning commission meeting, some argued allowing an outdoor cafe in the park would not only benefit the Ox Bar & Grill, but also help the downtown area as a whole.

"This, outdoor seating, is one of the things we need more of here in Oxford as it will draw more people here and set us apart from other communities," wrote Madonna VanFossen, director of the Downtown Development Authority in an e-mail to the planning commission. "For example, neither Lake Orion or Rochester offers this specific dining experience. We can and should make room for this type of eating experience all over downtown and especially near (or in) the park where so many activities occur . . . In our vision plan, establishing outdoor eateries all around the DDA district is one of our goals that will contribute to our downtown's success."

"One of the things that the business owners would really like to see is more vitality in our downtown. We have to give people reasons to come downtown," Taylor noted. "The competition is down the street (Lake Orion). Our competition is Rochester. Our competition are the strip malls."

Taylor argued allowing the cafe would bring people to the downtown area on a daily basis to enjoy the outdoors and spend money in the community.

"The only thing that keeps Oxford going is that the dollars stay in Oxford," she said.

"I do not have a problem, in theory, with this," said Planning Commissioner Maureen Helmuth, who noted she doesn't see any difference between what the Ox Bar & Grill is proposing and what the now-defunct Parkside Dairy used to offer when its customers ate ice cream while sitting at tables in the park. She noted there have been tables in the park for 30 years.

Fellow Planning Commission Bryan Cloutier indicated he agreed with Helmuth.

But not everyone supported the cafe idea.

"As a taxpayer, I'm opposed to it," said village resident Dale Wolicki. "The park should remain the size it is and (be) made available to the groups and societies and members that need to have it for an event. It's a great public plaza, but we shouldn't be slicing off a piece and leasing it to a private business."

It should be noted the Ox Bar & Grill is not looking to the lease the park property from the village. It's seeking to use it free of charge.

Joe Bullen, who chairs the village Beautification Commission and served as village president for many years, also expressed his opposition to having a private cafe in the park, which he described as a "gem."

"It's still something that I really don't believe is the right thing to do," he said. "That (park) should completely remain for the people and not for any private use."

Bullen stressed that countless hours of volunteer work, plus $25,000 in private donations, went into renovating the park for public use and enjoyment.

Bullen said he knows of "only one other town with a park similar to ours" and that's in Lebanon, Ohio. It, too, has a gazebo.

In an e-mail to the planning commission, Steve Allen, who recently resigned from the body, voiced his opposition.

"The taking of public park space, or publicly-owned space, is a bad move and a poor precedent to set," he wrote.

Other letters of opposition were received from village residents Waunita Baril and Kathy Hummel.

"The loss of public space (in) the already small park will make it even smaller," Baril wrote. "We should be able to use the space without having to pay cash to someone or be limited (from using the park area near the Ox's proposed outdoor cafe) due to the fear of hurting someone with a frisbee or something."

In her letter, Hummel stated she does not believe "it would be acceptable to the private citizens who donated money for park renovations" if public property were made for the "exclusive use" of a private entity.

Hummel also asked if the Ox Bar & Grill was planning to serve liquor in this outdoor cafe because alcohol is currently banned in all village parks.

Village ordinance clearly states, "Alcoholic beverages are expressly prohibited from being on the grounds of any parklands of the village. No person shall be in possession of any containers, bottles, cans or beverages containing alcohol."

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.
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