Outdoor diners in St. Paul want drinks included

  • Article by: CHRIS HAVENS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 26, 2008 - 9:57 PM

St. Paul's rules on allowing alcohol outside bars and cafe's are too restrictive, says one City Council member.

Time and again, customers have told Pat Trotter they'd love to sip their wine while sitting at the tables outside her Merriam Park restaurant.

She wishes they could, too, but St. Paul requires her to get a separate license for serving alcohol outdoors. And she needs approval from 90 percent of property owners within a certain distance of her cafe.

That's been the law for more than a decade, its intention to allow businesses to serve outside but to also protect the peace and tranquility of a neighborhood.

But one City Council member thinks it's too strict and is proposing to relax that 90 percent requirement.

The proposed ordinance, sponsored by Council Member Pat Harris, will show up on the council's May 7 agenda for its first public reading. Prompted by business owners and customers looking to drink in the breeze, the changes would allow for a license application to be approved with a smaller percentage of signatures and the discretion of the council.

"We cherish our good weather so much, and people want to sit outside at their favorite places," Harris said.

The current requirements are too restrictive, said Bob Kessler, director of the city's Department of Safety and Inspections. Even if the council wanted to approve a license without the full 90 percent, it couldn't under the current ordinance.

"I think the current ordinance is horrible," said Hai Truong, owner of Ngon Vietnamese Bistro on University Avenue. "It's a pretty high benchmark."

That said, he's planning to go out this week to get signatures from neighbors so he can open a patio behind his restaurant. If it doesn't work this time, he'd like to see the proposed ordinance get approved and he'll try again.

The proposed plan breaks down like this:

• 90 percent approval by property owners within 300 feet lets the council grant the license.

• 60 to 89 percent approval by property owners within 300 feet would let the council grant the license with conditions.

• 59 percent or less approval by property owners within 300 feet would mostly likely mean no license, but the council would hold the option of approval with conditions.

In all cases, the application would need a public hearing. Considerations of the neighborhood -- noise, traffic, adverse effects -- would weigh heavily in the council's decisions.

Dave Wiegardt, music operations manager at the Turf Club, said relaxing the requirements would be a smart move by the city. He'd like for his patrons to be able to bring their beers with them when they go out front to smoke. It could help increase drink sales, which he said had fallen because of the smoking ban.

Council Member Dan Bostrom said he was a bit puzzled by the proposal because he didn't have a sense there were problems with the current ordinance.

"The one thing with 90 percent is it always told you a particular establishment had a decent relationship with its neighbors," Bostrom said. "Once you start dropping below that, you begin to ask the question, 'What's going on here?'"

Council President Kathy Lantry said she's open to the idea but needs to take a closer look. "Some bars have houses adjacent to them, and you don't want to discount the fact that people have to live next door," she said.

Council Member Dave Thune said the proposal has some good attributes, but he wants to make sure it doesn't get abused.

Harris said it has taken about a year to get the proposal to this stage. "We needed to work a lot at it to find something that protects neighborhoods and provides opportunity for businesses to improve their profits," he said.

District councils also play an important role in the process, and their input generally carries weight with council members.

"I think it's a good thing to give businesses a stronger ability to expand their profits if they can," said Tait Danielson Castillo, executive director of the District 7 Planning Council. "I think it's also good there are some neighborhood protections."

A neighborhood business' secret to success, Danielson Castillo said, is to be honest and communicate well with neighbors.

Kessler said there are a lot of reasons why people can't reach the 90 percent threshold, but the most common reason is difficulty in locating owners of rental properties.

"You have to do the detective work yourself," Trotter said.

Like Truong, she also will be embarking on the process of gathering signatures under the current ordinance.

Of the proposal, she said: "It seems more negotiable."

A public hearing on the ordinance would probably happen toward the end of May.

Chris Havens • 651-298-1542

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