Thursday, Jun 15, 2023

Arlington Advances Future of Outdoor Dining (“FOOD”) Study

Restaurants are a critical component of sustainable and active mixed-use areas in Arlington County. The County’s pandemic-era Local Emergency Declaration, which expired on August 15, 2022, created an expedited process for temporary outdoor seating areas (“TOSAs”) to allow restaurants, bars, and cafés with valid Certificates of Occupancy to provide outdoor seating through an expedited and application process.

The TOSA process, which will end on August 15, 2023, has proven extremely popular and afforded restaurants the ability offer a safer dining experience to make up for reduced indoor seating capacity.

With an eye towards helping restaurants expand dining options with fewer restrictions, and to learn from the lessons of TOSAs, the Arlington County Board last fall initiated its “Future of Outdoor Dining” (“FOOD”) study. The study’s purpose is to examine which aspects of the TOSA program should be incorporated into permanent outdoor café seating regulations, and improve the County’s overall outdoor café framework.

Over the past seven months, County staff have gathered information, evaluated experiences in peer jurisdictions and engaged with the community. The result of this extensive research effort has been the creation of a draft framework of proposed amendments to the Arlington County Zoning Ordinance and the County’s 2013 Guidelines for Outdoor Cafés.

At present, outdoor cafés may be approved on private property through an administrative process subject to certain use standards. They may also be approved on public property in conjunction with a 4.1 site plan or upon receipt of a use permit.

The draft framework seeks to streamline the approval process such that outdoor seating may be approved via an administrative review process in both public- and privately-owned spaces. The draft framework proposes amendments to Articles 7, 8, 12, and 14 of the Zoning Ordinance. Some of the changes include the following:

  • For Outdoor Cafés On Private Property: The draft framework proposes that outdoor cafés must obtain a new (to be created) Arlington County Code Chapter 70 outdoor café license. Café furniture (e.g., tables, chairs, bars, server stations, and canopies) would be permitted to be affixed to the ground. Sound and AV equipment will no longer be permitted in areas adjacent to R or RA districts without use permit approval. Cafés may be located on parking spaces that do not necessarily meet the Zoning Ordinance’s parking requirements with approval of a use permit.
  • For Outdoor Cafés on Public Property/Sidewalks: The draft framework proposes that outdoor cafés must obtain a new Chapter 70 outdoor café license. Outdoor cafés must be located in front of restaurants (rather than separated from the restaurant), and pedestrians must have a minimum six-foot wide straight and unobstructed clear zone. Sound and AV equipment will no longer be permitted in areas adjacent to R or RA districts without use permit approval.
  • For Outdoor Cafés in Privately Owned Public Spaces (“POPS”): The draft framework includes proposes a new Zoning Ordinance definition to account for approximately 75 POPS throughout the County that are privately owned but are under public access easement or license. Upcoming guidance from the County will address specific needs for POPS café permits and licensing and the County may pursue a use permit process for such seating areas.

The draft framework will be heard by the Planning Commission at its July 3, 2023 meeting, and is tentatively scheduled to be heard by the County Board on July 15, 2023.

More specific information on the Zoning Committee’s proposed changes may be found here.