Grove City relaxes permit process for restaurant, bar outdoor seating areas

Alan Froman
ThisWeek group

Since restaurants and bars reopened earlier this year for dine-in customers, many have relied on outdoor seating and patios to help offset the reduction of available seating inside their building as a result of COVID-19 restrictions.

Grove City has revised its procedures for approving permits for restaurants and bars seeking to add temporary outdoor seating areas.

Grove City Hall

City Council on Nov. 2 approved a resolution to simplify the permit process while COVID-19 restrictions remain in place.

"The intent is to expedite the process so that restaurants and bars can get these outdoor seating areas approved more quickly," development director Kyle Rauch said.

The city temporarily has waived the standard process in which an application is reviewed and approved by both the planning commission and council. The resolution also eliminates the 30-day waiting period after an application is approved by the commission and council.

"It's usually a three- or four-month process as you submit an application and have to go through the planning commission and City Council," Rauch said. "With these temporary changes, we're looking to make it about a 10-day process."

Under the temporary provisions, a restaurant or bar still would have to go through a review and inspection process that would be administered by the city's building division, Rauch said.

An application must include a description of the request and a plan showing the location of the seating area, as well as improvements and fixtures associated with the seating area.

The temporary outdoor seating area may take up no more than 25% of the parking area for a single site or 10% for businesses in multitenant developments.

"With the restrictions on indoor dining, most of these establishments don't have as many customers as before, and so they aren't having as many cars parked in their lots," Rauch said. "So a tent or some other temporary structure can be set up on a portion of the parking lot."

The temporary regulations allow for the installation of tents and the use of space heaters or other portable heaters as long as they meet all building, fire and safety codes, he said.

Additional permits could be required from the building division and the Jackson Township Fire Department, depending on the proposed improvements associated with the seating area, Rauch said.

"We know how important outdoor seating may be for restaurants during this pandemic," Rauch said. "We're trying to make it easier for these businesses to recapture some of the revenue they have lost.

Safety issues will be the main consideration rather than aesthetics, he said.

"We'll be reviewing the application to make sure there is still safe ingress and egress for vehicles and that pedestrians have safe ingress and egress within the site," Rauch said. "The fixtures aren't really important at this point as long as the seating area is safe."

The temporary outdoor seating permit would be valid for 180 days or until the state-mandated indoor dining restrictions are lifted, whichever comes first, Rauch said.

"Once the COVID-19 restrictions are no longer in place, a business will have to go through the regular special-use permit process if they want to maintain their temporary outdoor seating area," he said. 

The council resolution became effective immediately after the mayor's signature Nov. 2, but in the first two weeks, no establishments had submitted an application for a temporary outdoor seating area, Rauch said.

"It may be that people haven't heard about it yet," he said. "We're going to try to get the word out via social media."

The outdoor seating patios at Grove City Brewing Co. and Plum Run Winery in Grove City's Town Center have been a lifesaver for the establishments, managing partner Jodi Burroughs said.

After the pandemic hit in March, the restaurant offered delivery and pickup service before the front and back patios were reopened with reduced seating in mid-May, she said.

"It didn't make up totally for the loss of our full indoor capacity, but it helped," Burroughs said.

"Now the problem that a lot of restaurants and bars are facing is what to do during the cold-weather season," she said. "It's too cold for people to sit outside, but we can't be at full capacity inside yet."

And that's assuming the state doesn't close down restaurants again due to worsening COVID-19 case numbers, Burroughs said.

Grove City Brewing/Plum Run Winery plans to apply for a permit from the city to place a heated tent on the back patio, she said.

The coming of cold weather always means people won't be able to sit outside on the patio, Burroughs said.

But with the pandemic, moving indoors isn't an option, she said.

The city's temporary relaxing of the permit process will make it easier for restaurants and bars to be able to pivot to offer comfortable outdoor seating options for customers and help make up some lost revenue, Burroughs said.

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