Westport zoning commission begins laying framework for outdoor dining

Planning and Zoning Chairman Danielle Dobin, left, speaks at the Commission's Affordable Housing Subcommittee.

Planning and Zoning Chairman Danielle Dobin, left, speaks at the Commission's Affordable Housing Subcommittee.

DJ Simmons / Hearst Connecticut Media

WESTPORT — The Planning and Zoning Commission continued its preparation for the governor’s anticipated executive order that will allow restaurants to offer outdoor dining.

“My understanding is that the governor is going to issue an executive order that will basically suspend the existing requirements that we and everybody else has in connection with outdoor dining and allow a lot more flexibility,” Planning and Zoning Commission Chair Danielle Dobin said at a meeting on Monday.

One of the changes the state may put in place is allowing restaurants to use adjacent lots and parking lots for outdoor dining, she said.

However, Dobin said, one of her concerns was setbacks in residential areas because of a number of Post Road businesses that back up against neighborhoods. She said she would be comfortable having tables within 15 feet of a residential zone

“I do think it’s appropriate to create some setback relief,” she said.

Currently, restaurants with outdoor dining approvals have 50-foot setbacks, but Dobin said the executive order would largely set these limitations aside. She added the commission would have limited authority because of the order.

“What we do have the authority to do is to create a framework that the administrative process — or whoever is effectuating the administrative process — uses in order to look at what they want,” Dobin said.

Commissioner Chip Stephens said noise will have to be addressed. He said the commission could write a letter to local businesses stating they have the commission’s support, but ask for sensitivity to neighbors.

“I think we have to get some understanding there,” Stephens said.

Commissioner Paul Lebowitz said Gov. Ned Lamont’s reopen strategy already asks for limited capacity and reduced patronage in restaurants.

“If you add collectively all of that and then throw a setback on top of it, you could technically eliminate a lot of restaurants from being able to open up at all,” Lebowitz said.

Commissioners largely showed support for allowing flexibility for restaurant owners but supported having town hall staff in place to review neighbor complaints if necessary.

Dobin said a simple application would be helpful for restaurant owners because of the temporary nature of the governor’s executive order.

Restaurant owners who apply for outdoor dining would also have to present approvals from the police and fire departments, as well as the Westport-Weston Health District.

Dobin said beside considering a setback requirement for properties abutting residential properties, the commission should be open-minded.

“Obviously, this is only temporary,” she said. “But this really allows the restaurateurs the most amount of flexibility to work with each other, with other people and have their applications evaluated contextually on a case-by-case basis. That way, there are no broad rules setting forth what they can or can’t do.”

The zoning commission will continue the discussion at its meeting on Thursday.