PASO ROBLES — At its meeting Tuesday, the Paso Robles City Council gave city staff direction on an item that could levy an undetermined fee on those wanting to operate sidewalk cafes in public right-of-ways and would require any new sidewalk cafes to be constructed according to standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“There’s been a steady increase in the number of fenced sidewalk cafes over the past few years,” said City Engineer John Falkenstein. “Cafe areas are beginning to impact pedestrian circulation and accessible clearance.”
Falkenstein said that there’s currently no city process to limit the number, location or size of such eateries and there is no extra fee for operating a sidewalk cafe beyond the standard business license.
“What we’re talking about here tonight is looking for direction to establish some policy,” he said. “It (the proposed ordinance) would establish consistency to design and provide a process to review impacts on pedestrian flow.”
The construction requirements the city is considering include a five-foot path between the fence of the sidewalk seating area and the face of the curb, not including an 18-inch “vehicle overhang,” area, Falkenstein said. The fee, he said, could range anywhere from 10 cents per square-foot up to $3 per square-foot on a monthly basis, or up to $36 per square-foot on a yearly basis. The resolution has already been drafted, but the fee schedule has been left blank, to be left to the discretion of the council.
“If someone were to ask for sidewalk seating, the problem they’re going to have is there’s no way to implement it without reconstructing the sidewalk to make it ADA compliant,” Falkenstein added during his report.
City Manager Tom Frutchey said that while the Council does have discretion to set the fee anywhere they like, they do need to set a fee schedule.
“The sidewalk is owned by the public,” he said. “If an individual or business is going to take part of that public right-of-way for private use, the public deserves to be compensated, otherwise it’s considered a gift of public assets and we can’t do that.”
Several members of the public, mostly local restaurateurs, commented on the item, most of them angry that they’d only received notice that the item was being considered earlier that afternoon.
“What are the fees for?” asked Odyssey World Restaurant owner John Hawley. “We’re taxed here, we’re tax there. Fees are just another term for taxation. Anybody in business knows, we just pass it on. It’s another fee to the customer. It’s a tax. So here’s another tax and I don’t even see what it’s doing.”
City Council member Steve Gregory said that he agrees that city staff should have enforceable guidelines for design, but said that the fees should be left up the business owners themselves.
“They spend their money, they put their lives into their businesses and they try to make it a nice place for people to come,” he said. “And this is no reflection on anybody, I just want to say that it’s a business constraint…. Because businesses are being taxed to death — small businesses, small restaurants that are just starting out are getting hit on every angle. Every day they get a new tax.”
Council member John Hamon, seemed to support setting fees for sidewalk cafes.
“I’m hearing kind of an entitlement or a right to be able to use the sidewalk to gain more profit for the business without paying anything, that’s the problem I have with it,” he said. “To get the good ambiance of the downtown, to be able to use the funds in a way that will enhance the downtown, that’s really the way I hope we’re going here, is that all of these monies, if we do this, would stay downtown and enhance the downtown and then we can build on it. I don’t think any of the restaurateurs would have a problem if they saw this money going back into the downtown.”
Council member Fred Strong agreed that public property should not be used for free, but suggested that the property could be leased or sold to business owners wanted to use it.
“As a City Council, we have to look after the public’s property and what is the proper use of it,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that this isn’t a proper use, but if it is a proper use of a public property then the public still deserves to get a return on that use.”
Conversely, Council member Jim Reed was adamantly against imposing any new fees.
“In my time here in the city I can remember when the sidewalk around the park was not worth a dime,” he said. “We couldn’t rent a building, the sidewalk wasn’t worth a plugged nickel. Now, all of a sudden, we’re sitting here talking about how wonderful and how valuable our sidewalk is. Well, it isn’t because of whatever we did, it’s because of all the sweat equity of the people who went out there and built something. Now, all of a sudden, the sidewalk is worth something and we need to charge them for it. Maybe they should be coming to us and charging us for taking their valuable sidewalk and turning the sidewalk into something that’s valuable and contributing to our city. Now we’re going to charge them for their hard work, that doesn’t make sense to me.”
Mayor Steve Martin said that for him, the main issue was to have safety in design and avoid the legal definition of “gift of public funds.”
“I think the main issue has to be that we’re in compliance with the safety issues on the sidewalks,” he said. “We have to have appropriate passageways for people to safely traverse the city, that’s the primary reason for looking at this.”
All of the Council members agreed that more discussion and more public feedback are needed and voted unanimously to continue the discussion at their next meeting, set for June 6 at 6:30 p.m.