Maine City Plans to Allow Year-Round Outdoor Dining

outdoordiningIn many cities and communities across the United States, area regulations prevent diners from drinking alcohol outdoors, or even dining on public streets during certain seasons. For this reason, many restaurants use retractable screen doors and other boundaries to extend the perimeter of their businesses, allowing diners to enjoy the outdoors without falling afoul of local laws. Now, the city of Bangor, Maine is trying to make outdoor dining possible during all seasons, while also setting standards for interested restaurants.

Having recently completed a new square in the downtown area, city officials seem to be using this proposal to create an al fresco dining scene in the area. The plan would allow restaurants to offer table service with alcohol from April to October for a fee of $200, or $300 for the full year. Without alcohol, the fee would be reduced to $25 for seasonal service or $50 for the year-round option.

While al fresco dining is understandably more popular in temperate areas, it has become a significant part of culinary culture in Northern cities like Quebec and Montreal. However, Bangor currently does not allow year-round outdoor dining, making the city’s proposal unique for the area. Already, one restaurant has expressed an interest in outdoor drinking and dining in the winter months, especially during New Year’s and other holiday celebrations.

Interestingly, the prospect of paying a fee for outdoor dining does not seem to bother local businesses, even though no municipal fee existed in the past. Instead, restaurants who offer outdoor seating and plan to serve alcohol submit a proposal to the state of Maine, which has strict regulations on fencing and supervision. The city only helps the businesses work out the details of their negotiated dining area. Because of the change in city policy, Bangor city officials say that the fee will be necessary to cover staff time spent on the dining licenses, as well as to protect the public squares and sidewalks the businesses will be using.

More controversy seems to surround the outdoor dining areas themselves: following the renovations to the square, the city is considering either an 11-foot or 19-foot limit on outdoor seating areas, which will extend from the business’s facade to the square’s new planters. The discrepancy is due to debate over whether the limit should extend to the near side or the far side of the planter. Businesses are in favor of the 19-foot limit, which would give them more seating and serving room, while supporters of the 11-foot limit say that their choice would help prevent litter and damage to the plants. In the past, businesses were usually allowed to spread out 18-19 feet in front of their buildings, but city officials now say that this might take up too much room in the new square.

Additional debate has raged over the fencing, furniture, awnings and other implements that might be used in the dining areas. In other cities, restaurants can often choose between retractable screen doors, wrought iron fences, and other effective barriers, but Bangor plans to establish a Design Review Committee to set requirements and review and approve proposed choices. This could greatly decrease businesses’ creativity: one city councilor has reportedly made statements against white picket fences, saying that they create a “barnyard look.”

“Retractable screens will offer a great solution to the restaurant owners who need to limit boundaries of their outdoor dining areas while maintaining a beautiful & professional appearance AND they won’t limit the beautiful scenery Maine is known for,” says Frank Kerski, Screenex Retractable Screens. “Retractable screens come in widths up to 19′ and will also keep the legendary mosquitoes of Maine at bay.”

Currently, the proposed regulation is subject to council approval, with a slight majority supporting the 19-foot limit. If successful, the city plans to institute a temporary ban on the licensing fee until 2016 for all downtown businesses. This is reportedly meant to thank businesses in the area who suffered decreasing revenues during the square’s construction.

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