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Friday, July 9, 2021

Bellevue Zoning Ordinance Regulates and Supports Outdoor Dining

The Bellevue Entertainment District, or BED, along Fairfield Avenue has many restaurants and bars with outdoor dining options.

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by Robin Gee, city council beat editor

The Bellevue city council has approved a Campbell County Planning and Zoning recommendation to amend its zoning ordinance to allow outdoor dining and to set flexible rules for the process. At their June 9 and 15 meetings, council hammered out the details with the caveat that city regulations could be tweaked or changed as things unfold.

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The decision was a culmination of several months of discussion throughout the community on the issue, both public and private, in-person and online.

A temporary change sparks new opportunities

In an effort to bolster and support food and beverage businesses hard hit by the COVID pandemic, state and city officials relaxed rules to allow new or additional outdoor dining options within municipalities. The ability to serve customers outside and to expand seating, sometimes into parking areas and sidewalks, was a boost for many of these businesses and, for some, was the key to keeping them afloat during hard times.

Owners and many of their customers within the city of Bellevue discovered outdoor dining offered new opportunities and fun experiences. This spring, as many of the COVID restrictions — and permissions — were set to expire, discussion turned to making these special arrangements permanent. Many people saw that outdoor dining brought with it new levels of engagement and the promise of good things to come.

Yet, some residents living near businesses with outdoor seating were not happy with the noise level and were concerned about parking and space for pedestrians along the street now taken up by tables and chairs. What should be allowed, when it should be allowed and even if it should be allowed has been major topic of discussion within the community.

Taking it to zoning and a public hearing

Before the pandemic, outdoor dining was not a permitted use in city zones. To make anything permanent would require a zoning amendment. Business owners, backed by their customers and friends, approached city officials to request an amendment to the zoning ordinance.

About 50 people in person and another 50 online attended the county planning meeting in May to discuss the matter. About 25 people spoke at the hearing, most in strong favor of the amendment. They pointed out that the Fairfield Avenue business area in particular has become a popular draw from across the region, a goal set in the city’s comprehensive plan.

The business area recently became a designated Entertainment District, and the outdoor dining and entertainment has served to enhance that designation, supporters argued.

One longtime resident, who lives on Fairfield Avenue, however, sent in a letter against the issue stating that music and noise from Three Spirits Tavern disturbed the quiet he had enjoyed for many years.

The owner of the tavern, Charlie Zimmerman, has been a strong advocate for making outdoor dining permanent. He said he understood his neighbor’s concerns and had offered to work out a solution between them.

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Working out the details

During discussion several important issues came up. One issue was the number of outdoor seats permitted. The current ordinance regarding outdoor dining sets outdoor seating capacity at 40 percent of the total capacity. In other words, if there is seating for 100 people, 60 seats could be inside and 40 outside.

Business owners argued that the formula severely restricted them and made no sense. It was believed the original limits were put in place to encourage brick-and-mortar permanent establishments.

Other issues were noise levels, days of the week and times of day. Commissioners agreed that some of these issues would have to be left to city noise ordinances and related regulations as their job was only to look at zoning.

After the public hearing, Planning and Zoning Director Cindy Minter, who had supplied a draft of a potential amendment, worked with commissioners to address concerns. They decided to change the capacity formula entirely, flipping it to allow outdoor capacity to be 80 percent of the total. The commissioners made a recommendation to council to approve a zoning change.

Zoning amendment moves to city council

In June city council explored and further discussed the commissioners’ zoning recommendation. At the first meeting, officials heard from resident Dave Brun who expressed his concerns about loss of parking and pedestrian access.

Zimmerman spoke as well. "I’m glad we have had this opportunity to hear different people’s voices about how they feel about the city...I like the open dialog...I just want to remind everyone that part of our original plan for the city has always been to have a vibrant downtown tourist corridor, and I think a lot of these businesses are trying to do that. I think the job of the council is to balance that out between people who live in the city who have made valid remarks and the businesses who are going to propel the city into the future."

He noted that when businesses are successful they bring in revenue that can help the city add public safety personnel that in turn make the community safe and more attractive to families, and the families help support the schools and grow the community. He said he wants to be respectful of neighbors’ needs and to work with them on solutions, but also urged council to look at the big picture in what outdoor dining can bring to the entire community.

Council members wanted to minimize the burden on law enforcement, especially concerning noise. They also said they wanted to keep things as flexible as possible.

They approved of the seating solution of the 80/20 split, but Mayor Charlie Cleves noted that allowing outdoor dining does not mean the businesses will have carte blanche to add seating anywhere they like. He noted that the state has allowed for businesses to submit requests for some expansion around their properties to accommodate capacity. Owners were instructed to submit their plans for approval by the Kentucky Alcohol and Beverage Control.

He noted that capacity is governed by fire and building codes. One code outlines the number of bathrooms needed as one pair of bathrooms for each 100 people capacity. Other codes cover access for pedestrians and related safety issues.

Exactly how outdoor seating will look will be different for each establishment, said City Administrator Frank Warnock. Businesses would need to apply for a license and discuss their plan with the city on an individual basis. At first, this will add time to the process, he said, but the ordinance has been written to provide flexibility that should ease the process for all involved.

To help with the transition from the soon-to-expire COVID rules and the revised zoning ordinance, council also passed an order to extend the COVID rules to the end of the summer, giving the city and community time to adjust and prepare for the new rules.  

Still to come

The city discussed changes to the noise ordinance as well, although council has not yet voted a final version. The proposal is to take a two-level approach. When a complaint on noise has been lodged, an officer can assess the situation to determine if the noise is causing a disturbance and if it can be heard from a certain distance.

If the noise continues to be loud, officers can use a decibel meter to make a determination. Proposed changes were discussed at the last council meeting but it was tabled to refine noise level limits. It is expected to be introduced at a July council meeting.


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