McKee signs bill extending outdoor dining

GOV. MCKEE has signed legislation extending the moratorium on some local zoning laws prohibiting outdoor dining that was set to expire April 1./ PBN FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO PBN PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO

PROVIDENCE – Gov. Daniel J. McKee on Thursday signed into law legislation allowing restaurants to continue approved outdoor dining until Feb. 15, 2024, without having to worry about regulatory uncertainty or potential municipal rollbacks during the high seasons.

A bill extending the moratorium on some local zoning laws prohibiting outdoor dining that was set to expire April 1 was sponsored by Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, D-South Kingston,  and Sen. Alana DiMario, D-Narragansett, passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate

The measure gained public support from organizations such as the Rhode Island Business Coalition and R.I. Hospitality Association. DiMario and McEntee said they plan to introduce further legislation making the moratorium permanent.

“With the warm weather coming, our small businesses deserve clarity and certainty,” said DiMario in a Thursday statement. “By passing this extension, we ensure restaurants can plan for this spring and summer as we continue to work with local leaders and small business owners to make outdoor dining permanent.”

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The statewide “Take it Outside” campaign allocated millions of dollars to hospitality organizations and small businesses to shore up revenues during the pandemic. The program  “has proven to be very popular with residents, tourists, and business owners alike,” said McEntee. “With confusing zoning ordinances that vary from town to town, the process of providing outdoor dining can be costly and overly burdensome on small businesses.”

Passing this bill “provides a window of relief” until a long-term solution can be reached, she added.

RIHA President Dale J. Venturini said on Friday the organization “has worked hard to maintain outdoor dining options that were created during the pandemic.”

“Our customers have come to expect having a great dining experience whether indoors or outdoors,” she said. “We are thrilled that the legislature extended the moratorium  while we work on a more permanent solution. “

However, support for the moratorium extension was not universal. Some city and town officials scoffed at a law they felt decreased local rulemaking and oversight over zoning regulations.

In written testimony to the House committee on small business, East Greenwich Town Council member Renu Englehart said the town has had several bars and restaurants “that have not been good tenants of East Greenwich since the emergency zoning bypass was allowed,” resulting in in litigation with several establishments.

“Without proper zoning codes and the ability to enforce…we are putting our residents and other patrons at risk,” said Englehart.

Supporters of the moratorium hope its extension will give some clarity through the spring and summer months regarding what is and is not allowed.

In Newport, officials were already discussing the creation of updated regulations concerning outdoor dining along Broadway, a section of the city that has seen an explosion of new and popular eateries in recent years, many with outdoor options launched during the pandemic.

On March 22 the Newport City Council codified a new permit process for “sidewalk cafes” to be allowed between Gould and Farewell streets along Broadway on public parking spaces. The city already has an ordinance allowing permits for sidewalk dining.

Newport City Hall spokesman Thomas Shevlin said the new permits were a result of local restaurant businesses and city officials finding common ground. The permits include a fee between $3,000 and $4,500 that is good from May 1 and October 31. Permit holders must close by 11 p.m. and are allowed to open outdoor operations five days per week.

“Everyone essentially was wondering what was going to happen [with Take It Outside],” said Shevlin. “We wanted to avoid someone just doing something because they believe they are allowed to do it.”

Christopher Allen is a PBN staff writer. You may contact him at Allen@PBN.com.

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