2016-06-16 / Front Page

City Mulls Sidewalk Laws

By Olga Enger

With the proliferation of sandwich boards across the city, officials remind business owners that they are to contact City Hall and outdoor signage is to be approved by council. (Photo by Kirby Varacalli) With the proliferation of sandwich boards across the city, officials remind business owners that they are to contact City Hall and outdoor signage is to be approved by council. (Photo by Kirby Varacalli) As crews mix the last batches of cement for the new Broadway sidewalks, Newport is taking a closer look at how businesses will optimally share the new walkways with pedestrians.

After years of construction on Broadway, the heavy lifting to the roads and sidewalks is expected to wrap up by July. However, with the wider walkways and improved pedestrian facilities, the city is faced with a new set of questions of how to balance the rights of business and pedestrians.

The general protocol is that Newport sidewalks require a six-foot pedestrian passageway, and council approval is required for all structures, including outdoor seating and sandwich boards.

“We are going to continue to fine tune the ordinance, so that we can enable businesses but not hinder the rights of pedestrians,” said Newport Zoning Officer Guy Weston. Officials expect to present the revisions for council consideration by July.

“Under the ordinance, sandwich boards are not allowed on sidewalks without council approval. We permitted Broadway businesses to put them out during construction as a courtesy,” Weston said. “But we have had complaints from physically challenged pedestrians who can’t get by.”

Zoning officers recently walked down Broadway and advised businesses owners they must take down their boards or place them up against the building, said Weston.

Likewise, although council has recently approved a series of new and renewed sidewalk cafe permits, officials said they plan to take another look at the impact to the public. “We’re beginning to understand the issues involved,” said City Manager Joseph Nicholson at the June 8 City Council meeting as part of a discussion on applications for two new outdoor cafes.

With the installation of bumpouts, trees and other structures, available sidewalk space is inconsistent across Broadway businesses. However, the current permit fee is a flat $300, regardless of the number of seats, tables or liquor license. The ordinance outlines operating restrictions, including the fact that merchants must have proper insurance; alcoholic beverages may only be served where food service is also offered; and cafe seating must be removed by 11 p.m., with proper cleanup completed by midnight. The ordinance does not limit the size of the dining area or number of tables allowed.

“I do see some things that need to be looked at, and it’s not just businesses taking advantage of the bumpouts,” said Nicholson. City Council unanimously approved both applications, which were for Broadway restaurants Parlor and Norey’s. “The sidewalk cafe licensing should go forward, but everyone should be aware that we are going to be reviewing the ordinance and things are going to be looked at closely,” said the city manager.

Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano pointed out the principal purpose of the sidewalks is for public usage.

“We have tried to be very flexible with Broadway; however, we need to be careful in the future. The purpose of the Complete Streets concept is for residents and visitors,” said the mayor.

As the city looks towards post-construction, the transition has generated confusion for some merchants.

“Zoning came by and told us to remove our sandwich board,” said Timothy Sousa, co-owner of Tavern on Broadway. “We paid one of our employees, an artist, to create it for us. After two years of construction, this is adding insult to injury.”

The restaurant is now in its third year, and Sousa said that although construction introduced challenges to launching their business, Tavern’s team developed creative marketing techniques to get the word out – one tool being their sandwich board.

“We really gave it a lot of thought. It’s artfully done and it brings in customers. I’m sensitive to providing enough room for people with disabilities; but the city has to use common sense. Is this really what they are focusing on right now? There is a huge hole in front of our business; there was a stabbing right outside this week. But they are focused on my sign – the one tool I can use to bring in business,” said Sousa.

He hopes the city will collaborate with merchants as they review the local laws.

For a business such as the Tavern to legally put up a sandwich board, Weston said they would have to submit a letter and appear before council.

“They would probably have to show they have insurance coverage, in case someone tripped on the sign,” said Weston. Although sandwich boards are not uncommon across Newport, the zoning officer said he is unaware of any businesses that have applied for a permit.

Stephanie Bennett, owner of Scratch Kitchen and Catering on Broadway, said zoning stopped by while she was out and told her staff to move the board. Bennett, who opened her business last year, has only known construction as a Broadway business owner.

“We moved it by the tree. They haven’t come by again, so I’m not sure if that’s OK or not. I’m not really clear what the rules are,” she said.

And, although the council has approved a series of outdoor sidewalk cafes, they stopped short of allowing outdoor entertainment when they declined to endorse an application submitted by Fifth Element at the June 8 meeting. The motion failed in a 5-1 vote, with Councilor John Florez in favor and Councilor Naomi Neville not in attendance.

“This is a grand experiment, and I think we should give these types of requests a try… it would add vitality to the area,” said Florez.

But Second Ward Councilor Lynn Ceglie said that granting the license would be premature and that the city needs “to look at Broadway in its totality” before allowing outdoor entertainment.

“Fifth Element has been a good neighbor; maybe we should think out of the box,” said Councilor Justin McLaughlin.

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