Rehoboth patio ordinance under fire from business community

by Michael Short on October 5, 2010

By Michael Short

Efforts to enforce the patio ordinance in Rehoboth Beach have prompted an outcry from local businesses.

Many of those restaurant owners showed up for a meeting of the Rehoboth Beach Commissioners on Monday, Oct. 4. Monday’s meeting was only a workshop session, but the issue prompted nearly two hours of discussion.

Commissioner Kathy McGuiness, in a letter read on Monday,  even referred to it as “patiogate.”

Commissioner Pat Coluzzi said she had received more than 70 emails on the subject and Monday’s meeting was standing room only.

Rehoboth Beach has an existing patio ordinance which restricts restaurants from serving either alcohol or food after 10 p.m. on patio facilities. Customers must leave the patios by 11 p.m.

It’s a 19-year-old ordinance that business owners say has not been enforced until recently. But prompted by noise complaints, the city has begun to more vigorously enforce the ordinance.

City officials said the ordinance has been enforced previously, but in a more low key one-on-one manner in which businesses might be asked to turn down the volume etc.

The change prompted complaints about the sudden decision to enforce the ordinance and concern from some that there has been selective enforcement. Some restaurants are grandfathered in, meaning they existed before the 1991 law and don’t have to meet those time limits. The issue of grandfathering further complicates an already complex issue.

Commissioners at Monday’s session were quick to say that the problem is noise and not patrons enjoying dinner or a drink. There is a city noise ordinance, a disturbing the peace ordinance and the patio ordinance, all of which are aimed at least partially at keeping noise levels under control.

Commissioners were also quick to say that most of the city’s 63 businesses with liquor licenses follow the city rules and try to abide by the laws.

But commissioners and business people differed on how to resolve the issue. The city came under fire for what one restaurant owner called an “iron fist” approach. In a few cases, people were fingerprinted and arrested and there were numerous comments that the city has handled the situation badly.

In the end, Rehoboth Beach Main Street offered to lead an effort to have business owners and city officials work together to review the issue and try to come up with a solution that is equitable.

They are expected to meet soon, although a time and location are still to be determined.

The city began enforcing the ordinance more rigorously after Labor Day. City Manager Greg Ferrese said that he received complaints or concerns  from three commissioners about noise or similar issues in late August or early September.

“Enough is enough,” he said.

He said that restaurants sometimes back up to residential areas in various locations. Ferrese said he had worked with the city solictor and waited until the summer season ended to increase enforcement because it was after the busiest season for restaurants. “We let it go in the summer,” he said.

Ferrese said he was given a list of about a dozen restaurants that were the subject of complaints.

Commissioner Stan Mills said he was one person who complained, but that he was not the only person. In fact, he said restaurants sometimes complain that other restaurants are not following town ordinances.

He agreed most businesses respect the town code, but said the small majority that flaunt the rules “create an unlevel playing field.”

Mills said some owners, when they came before the commissioners and said they would follow town codes, “had their fingers crossed behind their backs.”

Police Chief Keith Banks said that it was frustrating that some businesses agree to turn down their music or sound and then crank up the volume ten minutes later.

Bill Shields, co-owner of the Aqua Grill, said that he never turns the volume back up and has tried hard to work with the city. “I’m trying to be part of this community. . . I have tried so hard to work with the community.”

“I am really sad,” he said.

Bitsy Cochran, a business owner and former commissioner, said that she has been sleeping with her air conditioner on because the bass sound from one business near her “just reverberates.”

“I’m glad to see you’re taking this issue seriously, but it was handled very poorly,” she said.

“I advise and ask and plead that you not have a knee jerk reaction,” said Gene Lawson. Lawson, an attorney, was an owner of the Strand Nightclub, the business that some said prompted the ordinance in 1991.

One man said he was gay and that it seemed gay businesses had been targeted and that  made him feel like he was being “picked on.”

Others said the town’s actions were making the city look bad. Some said that with the tough economy, the city was taking money out of their pockets when they are struggling to stay in business.

Commissioner Dennis Barbour said the enforcement for a few flagrant violaters “is like trying to kill a flea with a hammer.”

“It must be kept in mind that Rehoboth is a beach resort community,” Barbour said in a written statement. “Just as there are accomodations that we must make to our daytime visitors, so , to, there are accommodations that we should make to our nighttime visitors and the businesses that serve them.”

Sydney Arzt, longtime owner of the former Sydney’s Side Street, said that Rehoboth needs to consider the future. “Think in the big picture. What is Rehoboth really wanting to be? Do you want to be another Bethany Beach?” she asked.

Commissioner Lorraine Zellers said that “we do support our businesses. We all do.”

Coluzzi said some of the emails made the assumption that the city commissioners don’t care about businees. “That’s not true,’ she said.

Mayor Sam Cooper was asked to suspend enforcement. While he stopped short of agreeing to do so, he agreed to meet with Ferrese and with Chief Banks.

Comments on this entry are closed.

[CoastalSussex] on Twitter[Coastal Sussex] on Facebook[Our] RSS Feed[Our] Email