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New rules for outdoor dining in Fairfax take step forward

Planning Commission OK's proposals, which go to Board of Supervisors on Feb. 6

Proposed new outdoor-dining rules, modeled on ones implemented during the pandemic, on Jan. 10 earned the unanimous recommendation of the Fairfax County Planning Commission.

The zoning-ordinance amendment would codify elements of the earlier emergency ordinance, set to expire March 1, regarding parking, alcohol, furniture, pedestrian circulation, emergency access and other factors.

The proposed rules would:

• Classify outdoor dining as an accessory use and disallow permanent structures to be associated with it.

• Allow outdoor dining as an accessory use in all zoning districts that allow food establishments, except where prohibited by proffer or development conditions, special permits or special exceptions.

• Require that outdoor-dining areas and their associated furniture, tents or other enclosures not obstruct building entrances or exits, pedestrian passage, fire equipment, handicapped accessibility or emergency-egress areas.

• Permit outdoor dining in parking lots only with an administrative permit obtained from the zoning administrator following payment of a one-time, $205 application fee.

• Not require any additional parking for outdoor-dining areas, regardless of their location or size. Parking could not be reduced below the minimum amount allowed, however.

• Continue to permit outdoor dining by right on impervious areas such as existing sidewalks and patios on private property.

Some commission members rejected an option that would restrict the size of outdoor-dining areas to no more than 50 percent of the eateries’ indoor-dining space.

Commission member John Carter (Hunter Mill District) said some long-extant restaurants in Reston have outdoor-dining areas that exceed their indoor space and he did not wish to put them out of business.

“These are not just food-service places, these are place-making places,” Carter said.

Lily Yegazu, a staffer with the county’s Department of Planning and Development, responded that many such large restaurants already had approvals for their outdoor-dining setups before the pandemic-related emergency rules were implemented and would not be affected by the new proposals.

The new rules would apply only to new restaurants or those that installed temporary outdoor-dining spaces under the emergency ordinance, officials said.

County staff said the optional 50-percent size limitation was intended to ensure that outdoor dining remained a subordinate accessory use to the eating establishments. If outdoor-dining areas become too substantial, they require extra fixtures, such as restrooms and sinks, they said.

Carter successfully moved, albeit with two nay votes, to have no size limit for outdoor-dining areas.

“My concern is we’re putting several businesses out of commission here,” Carter said. “The last time I looked, this was a desirable use.”

Commission member Daniel Lagana (Franconia District) agreed, saying outdoor dining enlivened shopping centers with interpersonal experiences.

“In suburbs, we’re so disaggregated and isolated in our homes,” he said. “By and large, I think landlords will be able to manage this.”

County staff recommended that outdoor-dining hours generally conform to dining establishments’ hours of operation. Staff also included an option not to allow outdoor dining before 7 a.m. or after 10 p.m. if located next to a single-family development, but Carter said some businesses already exceed that evening time frame.

Commission members unanimously approved an amendment by Carter to limit outdoor food service to same hours of the restaurant.

Lagana favored as few restrictions as possible on outdoor dining, with ground rules set by establishments’ landlords.

“I think we should just make it as easy as possible to have outdoor dining and to encourage activating a lot of this unused asphalt, if you will, in a lot of our parking lots,” Lagana said.

The Board of Supervisors will consider the proposed outdoor-dining rules at a public hearing scheduled for Feb. 6 at 4 p.m. The hearing cannot start earlier than that time, but could occur later in the meeting if earlier items on the agenda still are being considered.

The changes, if approved, would take effect the day after the board’s adoption. County officials have suggested a grace period through April 30 to allow establishments with existing outdoor-dining setups to comply with the new rules.

“I think this is going to be an important amendment to move forward,” said Commission member Candice Bennett (At-Large). “With the current emergency authorization [ending] soon, I think will be important for these businesses to have some certainty moving forward.”