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Noise complaints hold up Vienna Town Council vote on outdoor dining

Vienna restaurant Blend 111 converted part of its parking lot into a back patio to continue serving patrons during the pandemic (courtesy Blend 111)

Theresa Ayotte likes outdoor dining as a general concept, but her support wavers when those diners sound like they’re hanging out in her backyard.

Ayotte’s house sits behind the complex at 111 Church Street that contains Blend 111 and Bazin’s on Church, two of the 22 restaurants that have taken advantage of Vienna’s temporarily relaxed rules for outdoor dining during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She and her husband Howard Uman were among several Wilmar Place NW residents who urged the Vienna Town Council to limit outdoor dining for restaurants next to residential properties at a public hearing on Monday (Nov. 15) about making the simpler permitting process permanent.

“The noise from dining is intrusively loud and constant,” Ayotte told the town council. “…We have tolerated it for the past 18 months as our way of supporting the community during the pandemic, but we are totally opposed to it becoming a permanent fixture in our neighborhood.”

The town council agreed to postpone a vote on outdoor dining until its next meeting on Dec. 6 so they can discuss lingering questions about the zoning ordinance amendments, including how to address potential conflicts over issues like noise and parking.

“I have no issue at all with outdoor dining when backed up against commercial,” Councilmember Nisha Patel said. “I think when you’re backed up against residential, we do need to listen to the residents, but we also do need to support our businesses, and I do think there’s room for compromise.”

Prior to the pandemic, the Town of Vienna required a conditional use permit for outdoor commercial activities like food service, a roughly three-month-long process involving a $1,500 fee and reviews by both the planning commission and board of zoning appeals.

First proposed on Oct. 11 and supported by the planning commission earlier this month, the new ordinance would let restaurants use a patio, roof garden, or off-street parking spaces for outdoor dining with just a review by a zoning administrator.

The outdoor dining spaces would still need to meet certain conditions, primarily related to maintaining accessibility for pedestrians and people with disabilities, and all furniture and tents must be approved by the Vienna Board of Architectural Review.

Dining areas in parking lots have to be set up so that they could easily be converted back into parking, and restaurants would be limited to 20% of their required spaces, though businesses on Church Street could utilize more spaces with the town council’s approval.

“Some of the restaurants within the Church Street Vision buildings, they have a different parking standard, so 20% of their required parking is, in some cases, one parking space,” Vienna Planning and Zoning Deputy Director Michael D’Orazio explained. “You’re not able to utilize that very well.”

While much of Monday’s nearly two-hour public hearing focused on the Wilmar Place residents’ noise concerns, council members, restaurant owners, and even some of those residents expressed appreciation for the expanded availability of outdoor dining during the pandemic.

Mayor Linda Colbert said the town received over 100 emails on the topic. Some touched on the issues raised at the hearing, while others advocated for the economic benefits or the livelier ambiance that outdoor dining has brought to Vienna.

Blend 111 owner Michael Biddick called the town’s emergency ordinance allowing outdoor dining, which has been in effect since June 1, 2020, “a true lifeline” for his restaurant.

“Even in chilly 30-degree weather, we still find that guests prefer to dine outside on the patio. Without that patio space, we are not viable,” he said, adding that he hopes to make the patio permanent even though it takes “a significant effort” to maintain.

Though Biddick said he wasn’t aware of residents’ frustrations until the public hearing, Bazin’s owner Patrick Bazin acknowledged that he has gotten some complaints about loud parties and one occasion where a customer brought an amplified guitar and started singing.

He told the council that he’s open to working with residents to make Bazin’s patio, which he said can accommodate as many as 40 to 50 people, tenable for them.

“We’re more than willing to do anything we have to do. That’s really never been a problem with either one of us,” Bazin said. “But we really created a magical spot for our customers and the surrounding area.”

Facing a Dec. 7 expiration date for the emergency ordinance, the town council voted unanimously on Monday to extend it to its last possible deadline of Dec. 31, though they will need to formally renew it on Dec. 6 due to Vienna’s public advertising requirements.

While the details will be determined at a work session before that December meeting, the council suggested creating an appeals process, giving the zoning administrator more specific criteria to follow when issuing permits, and reviewing the legislation a year after it’s passed to see if it needs to be modified.

“I see the conflict right now for Church Street, but we have to write legislation for the whole town,” Councilmember Chuck Anderson said. “There needs to be a way, I feel, to resolve conflicts that will rise in the future, and we don’t really know where those are.”

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