Planning board considers possibility of permanent restaurant outdoor seating

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Photo/Dakota Antelman
Harry’s Restaurant in Westborough is hoping to convert its COVID-19 era outdoor dining space into a permanent fixture of its business as pandemic restrictions lift.

By Susan Gonsalves, Contributing Writer

WESTBOROUGH – Gov. Charlie Baker recently signed into law an agreement extending special permits for restaurants offering outdoor dining due to COVID-19 through April 21 of next year. 

The night before that action, in Westborough, Building Commissioner Fred Lonardo told the planning board that there was at least one restaurant, Harry’s, that would like to offer outdoor seating permanently.

During a June 15 Planning Board meeting, Lonardo discussed some of the implications of the then-pending bill and how it could affect the town.

He said that he was unaware how the other 10 or 11 restaurants in town temporarily using outdoor seating feel about continuing that practice going forward.

Lonardo said he feels business owners should know they would be susceptible to the site plan review process and, with it, a minimum $1,000 fee if they extend their outdoor dining.

Planning Board Chair Mark Silverberg said that the board didn’t have the authority to make permanent bylaw changes; that would be up to Town Meeting. Additionally, he said recourse could be found through the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Town Planner Jim Robbins said the business owners could apply for waivers on fees for some aspects of a site review but would have to adhere to set rules about parking.

Alteration to parking plans to accommodate outdoor seating, for example, would be what triggers the possibility of a limited or full site plan review, Planning Board member Tim Koehler said.

Post-pandemic, Koehler added, the most straightforward path would be for the town to return to the rules and regulations it enforced pre-pandemic. If a business owner finds that outdoor seating is profitable and wants to continue, that owner should “make the business decision to put capital at risk to make this permanent” while conforming to the laws, he said.

Silverberg said that he wanted to be sensitive to the difficulties small businesses have faced because of the pandemic. 

He said he would be open, on a case-by-case basis, to considering waivers for some of the documents included in a site plan review.

Lonardo touched upon a possible continuation of restaurants selling beer, wine and cocktails to-go. He noted that would be under the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission’s jurisdiction and a police matter if rules are violated.

Planning Board member Hazel Nourse suggested that the restaurant owners be apprised of the legislation and what the requirements are under town and state laws.

The building commissioner noted that Economic Development Coordinator Zach Boughner had already sent that information out to the affected parties.

On June 16, the extension Baker signed extended cocktails to-go permissions through that same April 2022 date.

Members talked about ensuring that all businesses should be treated fairly, and noted that exceptions should not be made for one and not the other.

Silverberg ended the discussion by saying he hoped the state would be forthcoming with solutions.