The run to sidewalk cafes in Annapolis

September 19, 1995

ANNAPOLIS' CITY COUNCIL has set a dangerous precedent by allowing sidewalk cafes on a trial basis. Not because there's anything wrong with sidewalk cafes; done correctly, they would be a charming addition to the state capital, as well as provide a needed economic boost.

It's the way the council is going about bringing cafes to the city that's the problem. Basically, the council is trying to dance around the city code in order to let restaurants suffering from the ongoing reconstruction of Main Street set up outdoor dining in time for this fall's boat show and the 150th anniversary celebration of the U.S. Naval Academy.

The zoning code now makes no provision for cafes. Changing that requires legislation. In fact, legislation to allow them has been floating around for months. But continuing delays in the legislative process mean the council won't be able to approve a change before the upcoming festivals.

So council members passed a simple resolution -- which did not require a public hearing -- to allow almost completely unregulated sidewalk cafes from Sept. 29 to Dec. 15 while they consider permanent legislation.

This is like letting your teen-ager have a TV in his room while you decide if and under what conditions he keeps it for good. Once he's got it, it's not going to be easy to take it away, or even to toughen up the rules later about when he can watch.

Whether you agree with cafe opponents -- and we don't -- they will be at an unfair disadvantage once these cafes are up. It will be more difficult to craft permanent legislation with details about how they should look, where they should be placed and when they should operate once restaurateurs have had an entire fall to set them up as they please. Annapolis' council, quite simply, has put the cart before the horse. However, the greatest problem with the temporary permit is the precedent it sets. If sidewalk cafes can enjoy an unregulated trial period, then why not kiosks on City Dock or corner vendors?

Sidewalk cafes are a nice idea. Nonetheless, it's wrong of the council to sidestep the legislative process to expedite their arrival.

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