Camille Myser has a huge expanse of open space outside the front door of her café on the edge of downtown Prior Lake - far more than any conventional sidewalk. It's perfect for patio dining.

But when she learned that the Metropolitan Council charges even small family-owned businesses like her Jazz Company Café a whopping $1,000 per table of four to add those extra seats, the space remained sun-baked and empty.

"I can't make that back," she said, "and besides, the formula isn't fair: Just adding seats isn't necessarily going to add any customers. It just gives the ones I have a choice."

Her arguments, added to those from the city of Apple Valley, which blamed the rules in part for a restaurant closing in that city, have helped persuade the Met Council to change its rules. Beginning this fall, the charges will fall to just a quarter of what they have been.

The Met Council's role in the matter was steeped in irony:

• The council's planning arm spends tens of millions of dollars promoting charming, pedestrian-friendly town center projects such as Burnsville's Heart of the City, usually with sidewalk dining as part of their quasi-Euro vibe.

• Yet the council also runs the more crewcuts-and-work-boots part of the metro area, its sewer infrastructure. And in that role, it needs the money. The area's development implosion has cut deeply into the fees the council depends on to keep building new sewer pipe.

But the restaurant industry succeeded in arguing that it shouldn't be shouldering the burden, because a sidewalk table simply doesn't put as much strain on the sewer and water system as a conventional table.

Phil Roberts, whose Parasole Restaurant Holdings offers sidewalk seating at Chino Latino, Salut, and other locations, calculates that between cold, wind, rain and other enemies, "you might get 70 days all year" of dining outside in Minnesota. Yet the charges were the same, indoor and out.

The complaints rose in volume when the statewide smoking ban pushed owners to consider outdoor seating for smokers. American Legion Post 643, in downtown Savage, believes it lost 10 to 15 percent of its smoking clientele. But it also was shocked to discover it would cost about $40,000 in sewer and water hookups to add the size of patio it wanted.

Apple Valley's community development director, Bruce Nordquist, wrote to the council to say that a promising restaurant called La Luz, on Galaxie Avenue, both opened and closed in 2008 partly because of the high cost of upfront charges for patio seating - about $6,500.

Starting in October, all that will change. Under the guidance of newly appointed Met Council member Wendy Wulff, of Lakeville, the fees have been sliced back.

Cutting back

When the complaints started piling up, the council's staff at first proposed a 50 percent reduction, while acknowledging it was little more than a stab at the right price. "The 50 percent proposal was an acknowledgement that there is a technical basis for a discount, but that we cannot accurately determine exactly how much," staff members told council members in a memo.

In the face of continued criticism, including a public hearing in August that drew 51 people - a big crowd for an agency that tends to labor in the shadows - the council's staff agreed to move further, to a 75 percent discount off the normal fee.

Part of its rationale for doing so: While imposing the full fee was a means of insuring that the metro has adequate capacity in case all the restaurants are full of people drawing water and using the restrooms, in reality it doesn't work that way. Stormy weather, which causes the most problems to the system, is precisely the time when people avoid outdoor tables.

Myser was surprised to learn last week that the council had actually acted on her and others' complaints - and started staring out the window, calculating what might be next.

"It wouldn't be until next June, anyway," at this point, she said, given weather's effect on outdoor dining. And alas, she said, for her personally it doesn't erase all the issues, because she now needs to try to persuade the city of Prior Lake to ease another set of rules: those that require big walls to close off any outdoor dining that includes wine or beer glasses. That, she fears, could be a big buzz kill.

She could, however, have a future ally at City Hall: Her brother-in-law, Mike Myser, is running for mayor.

David Peterson • 952-882-9023