CAPE MAY - Cape May City Council’s Sept. 7 agenda contained an ordinance introduction that, if adopted, would've ended the ability of local businesses to use public rights of way or parking lots for the support of outdoor dining in October.
The ordinance’s sponsor, Councilman Chris Bezaire, said he placed it on the agenda to promote discussion. Instead of making the item one for discussion, Bezaire elected to place a fully prepared ordinance before council as a potential action item, provoking cries of betrayal from some business owners.
Bezaire led off the discussion by saying he spoke to several business owners and heard no substantial objection to ending the use of the rights of way early. An earlier ordinance that established the ability of restaurants to use public space or to expand into their parking lots had set a sunset date of Dec. 31. Bezaire’s ordinance moved that date to Oct. 13, a date he said he was persuaded to change to Oct. 31.
Business owners who spoke argued that any such action by the council was a reneging on the flexibility they planned on having through the end of the year.
From the proprietor of 410 Bank Street, the council heard about the business' need for planning and the danger of “pulling the rug out from under” businesses that may have invested in expectations that ran through December.
“How dare you,” he shouted at the council.
Another business owner told the council of the fear that still motivated many customers to want outside seating.
“I can’t pay some customers to take an indoor seat,” she said.
Councilmember Shaine Meier argued that the city should stick to the decision already made and leave the Dec. 31 expiration date for the use of public space.
During public comment, council members were told any change to the announced plan is “not right and not fair.” They were asked why there was a rush to end the process two months early.
Bezaire said part of the reason the end of October was inserted in the draft ordinance is that it was the point at which the county last year removed barriers that shielded parking spaces given over to dining tables.
"We have a precedent for it,” he said.
Bezaire added that he believes outdoor dining in some form is here to stay, but how that would work would be a discussion for the offseason. With this measure, he was seeking some “return to what we looked like pre-Covid.” He said the keyword in the earlier ordinance allowing the use of parking lots and municipal rights of way was “temporary.” He added that “by nature, parking lots are not meant to be used for dining.”
What outraged some business owners about the proposal was they could see no real benefit to ending the permissions two months early.
Some argued for the change. One resident complained about the noise from the outside bar at the C-View Inn, an establishment located in a residential area.
Jules Rauch, who spoke against the open container policy the city ended this year, argued that the city has “thrown out all its old regulations.” He said the city was known for fine dining.
“Food served at a picnic table is not fine dining,” he said.
He worried the city was turning into something other than what it's always been.
In the end, there was very little support for ending the city’s temporary outdoor dining practice earlier than Dec. 31. Bezaire reiterated that his intent had only been to promote discussion. The council voted to remove the proposed ordinance from the agenda.
To contact Vince Conti, email email@example.com.