Tuesday, Oct 04, 2022

Arlington County Ends Local State of Emergency: Changes Coming to Virtual Meeting Process and Temporary Outdoor Seating

Changes are coming to Arlington County’s public meeting processes and Temporary Outdoor Seating Permits in the coming months:

Return of In-Person/Hybrid Meetings

The Arlington County Local Emergency Declaration (the “Emergency Declaration”), which was adopted by the County Board at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, formally ended on August 15, 2022. The Declaration allowed the County to shift to virtual operations, including holding remote County Board commissions and advisory group meetings, such as those of the Site Plan Review Committee, the Planning Commission, and the Board of Zoning Appeals. A new statewide Virginia Electronic Meeting Policy took effect on September 1, 2022, which limits those instances in which virtual meetings may occur. The policy also prescribes procedures that must be followed when a public body holds an all-virtual public meeting and requires that a written policy governing such meetings be adopted by each locality.

Under the policy, public bodies may hold virtual meetings twice annually, or 25 percent of all meetings, whichever is greater. The policy further allows for remote participation by the public and individual commission/advisory group members by exception.

As a result, Arlington County’s myriad public bodies (as well as those of other jurisdictions across the Commonwealth) will likely be switching to a hybrid or in-person meeting format in the coming months.

Details for such protocol changes continue to evolve. In some instances, public bodies may limit in-person participation to the minimum necessary to achieve a quorum. In other instances, representatives of land use applicants may be invited in-person, with other design team professionals participating remotely. It is yet to be determined how the public will participate.

Recent SPRC meetings have been held in a hybrid format, with some SPRC members and applicant representatives attending in-person, while others attend virtually. Applicants are encouraged to work with their respective project planner on meeting format and attendance to ensure a smooth meeting process.

The scope of these changes will most assuredly vary depending upon the type of board, authority, or commission. As Arlington County transitions to new in-person and hybrid meeting formats, future attendees should assume flexibility and be prepared to adapt to the new expectations.

Temporary Outdoor Seating Area Permits

The Emergency Declaration created an expedited process for temporary outdoor seating areas (“TOSAs”), which allowed existing restaurants, bars, and cafes with valid Certificates of Occupancy to provide non-rooftop outdoor seating through an expedited application process. TOSAs proved extremely popular and afforded restaurants the ability to offer a safer dining experience to make up for reduced indoor seating capacity.

The County also continues to accept and process TOSA applications, and TOSA permits will remain valid until six months after the August 22nd end of the Local Emergency Declaration, or until February 15, 2023. Staff anticipates notifying all valid TOSA permit holders of any updates or changes to the TOSA policy prior to their expiration date.

As a result, the County has signaled a return to its pre-pandemic process for restaurants to apply for permanent outdoor seating. Depending upon the location of the outdoor seating area, this process may include, but not be limited to, use permit approvals for seating areas within public access easements or public property, minor site plan amendments, encroachments, administrative change requests, and applications for temporary structures/tents.

The County recently commenced a “Future of Outdoor Dining” (FOOD) study to evaluate the future of outdoor dining and the lessons learned from TOSAs under the framework of the Zoning Ordinance. More information may be found here.

The County Manager will provide an update to the County Board regarding the FOOD study in November, and the County has created a survey for feedback, which may be found here.