In Westport, outdoor dining not going away any time soon

WESTPORT — Last winter, outdoor dining was “a must” for the Westport branch of Romanacci, said the restaurant’s owner, Maurizio Ricci. The COVID-19 pandemic had brought capacity restrictions for indoor dining and, at the time, the restaurant was in a smaller space.

Expanding operations to out-of-doors, “was a must for us,” Ricci said Friday.

Now, he said, he’s in a different place — literally. Romanacci moved to a larger space on Railroad Place, not far from its former site. Also, the restrictions on indoor dining have been lifted. But he and others in the restaurant business continue to see an interest in eating al fresco.

“In the world we live in now, some people prefer to be in a more open space,” Ricci said.

Others in town agree. On Wednesday, the Board of Selectmen heard two proposals to allow pop-up seating and cafes in parking spaces on certain roads between Nov. 1, 2021 and March 30, 2022. The town’s current guidelines only allow pop-ups from April 1 to Nov. 1 in a given year.

One application concerned adding seating on Church Lane, adjacent to the restaurant Manna Toast, and the other was to add seating on Railroad Place, adjacent to Tarantino restaurant, Harvest restaurant and Romanacci. While discussing the Church Lane application, David Waldman, a landlord for Bedford Square — which includes Manna Toast — addressed the idea that even though people can eat indoors, many still don’t want to.

“There are still a vast number of people who are uncomfortable (dining indoors) and probably will be uncomfortable for the near future if not the permanent future,” said Waldman, whose wife is one of the owners of Manna Toast.

The board ultimately decided to allow the pop-up structures on Railroad Place until Dec. 1, a month later than the current regulations, and bringing it back on March 1, a month earlier — if weather allows. With the Church Lane application, the board opted to allow a modified version of its original proposal, allowing the pop-up structures on the private sidewalk near the restaurant, as opposed to parking spaces, subject to planning and zoning approvals.

Those decisions came after more than an hour of discussion and presentations about the concerns of allowing outdoor seating in the winter. During the discussion, the selectmen and some public officials voiced concerns that applications could set precedents for more applications to allow winter pop-up dining.

“This will set precedent, and we will get a lot of requests,” said Westport Police Staff Corporal Alan D’Amura, who was one of several officials on hand to answer questions.

During the meeting, First Selectman Jim Marpe explained that, a year ago, the town allowed a number of partially enclosed outdoor dining facilities in public right of way areas near restaurants “in large part to help the restaurants whose indoor capacity had been limited by (COVID-19 restrictions).”

He said those restrictions had been lifted, but “outdoor dining remains popular in Westport, even in the winter months,” which explains the latest applications. However, Marpe pointed out that there are legitimate safety and maintenance concerns to placing restaurant seating in the middle of public rights of way.

Both Westport Police Chief Foti Koskinas and Westport Public Works Director Peter Ratkiewich spoke at the meeting about their concerns.

“There’s a reason that the pop-up regulations were written to have structures removed by Nov. 1,” Ratkiewich said. “This is New England. Weather is unpredictable. We need to be able to react quickly to remove snow and ice as soon as it occurs. Leaving the structures in place is counter to that goal.”

He pointed out that there were risks to the diners and risks to those removing the snow, plus concerns about the danger to public and private property.

“There’s potential for snow removal equipment to both damage the structures or to get damaged trying to work around them,” Ratkiewich said.

Koskinas voiced similar concerns.

“Public safety continues to be at the forefront and the challenges we saw were that we would get our crews out to clean all the snow. And sometimes immediately thereafter all the snow that was on these pop-up patios would get thrown either on the road or between the actual structures creating damming and icing issues,” he said.

Both Koskinas and Ratkiewich proposed a potential compromise that involved allowing pop-up seating until Dec. 1 and after March 1. Ratkiewich said the months he was most concerned about were December, January and February, because of the high likelihood of snowstorms.

Waldman suggested an arrangement in which any property owner with pop-up dining in the roadway be responsible for their own snow removal.

But Ratkiewich proposed a solution that was unique to Church Lane, which has wide sidewalks.

“I don’t see why the structures could not be, subject to Planning and Zoning regulations, on the sidewalk and stay out of the road,” he said.

Waldman later stated that there is a Plan B for Church Lane that involved putting the structures on the sidewalk. Ultimately, the Board of Selectmen voted to approve that idea, and the modified extension for pop-up dining at the Railroad Place eateries.

Both Ricci and Waldman said they were fairly satisfied with the decision. Waldman said Friday that he’d already submitted a proposal to Planning and Zoning, and that he thinks the idea of year-round outdoor dining isn’t one going away any time soon.

“People still like the opportunity to not eat indoors,” he said.