Sidewalk cafés have been allowed in downtown Riverhead zoning districts since 2004. The town board on Tuesday amended the town code to allow sidewalk cafés in the Village Center zoning district, which exists in parts of the hamlets of Jamesport, Aquebogue and Polish Town. Photo: Peter Blasl

Amendments to Riverhead’s outdoor dining code were adopted Tuesday by the town board to allow the operation of sidewalk cafés in downtown Jamesport, a portion of Main Road in Aquebogue and in Polish Town. The amendment also specifically allows sidewalk cafés in the downtown zoning use districts DC-1, DC-2 and DC-3.

The code, which regulates the operation of sidewalk cafes in the town, was amended to allow sidewalk cafés in the Village Center zoning use district. The Village Center which applies to a section of Main Road in downtown Jamesport and a section of the north side of Main Road — east of Church Lane to west of West Lane — in Aquebogue.

The amendment also specifies that sidewalk cafes are allowed in the DC-1, DC-2 and DC-3 zoning use districts.

Sidewalk cafés are regulated by the Outdoor Dining code, Chapter 253 of the town code, which has been in place since adopted by the Riverhead Town Board on July 22, 2004.

Until Tuesday’s amendment, the 17-year-old code allowed sidewalk cafés in “the downtown zoning use districts,” without naming the districts. Sidewalk cafés have been allowed as accessory uses to restaurants and retail food stores, on the sidewalk adjoining the principal place of business. The amendment removed “retail food stores,” so that sidewalk cafés can be operated outside restaurants only. They must be operated by the entity that operates the restaurant. The amendment allows sidewalk cafés on sidewalks six feet wide, where the existing code required a 10-foot-wide sidewalk.

Where the permit under the existing code was described as a “revocable permit” without a set term, the amendment approved Tuesday makes it an “annual revocable” permit. Tuesday’s amendment increased the annual permit fee from $25 to $150.

Other changes to the code adopted by the board Tuesday allow the fire marshal to issue the annual sidewalk café permit instead of the town board, and require applications for sidewalk café permits to be filed with the fire marshal’s office rather than the building department.

The Outdoor Dining code does not allow restaurants to use parking areas for outdoor seating. It specifically prohibits the obstruction of parking stalls. The amendments approved Tuesday do not affect that prohibition.

The town board last year temporarily lifted the prohibition on the use of public parking areas in order to allow local restaurants to have outdoor seating for patrons during the COVID crisis, once the state allowed restaurants to reopen for outdoor service. The board also temporarily suspended the $25 permit fee. The waiver adopted June 2, 2020 continued through Dec. 31. On Jan. 20, the board extended the waiver through June 30, and on July 1, the waiver was continued through Sept. 30.

Last summer, Supervisor Yvette Aguiar advocated making the waiver permanent, but the code amendment adopted Tuesday does not address that aspect of outdoor dining at all.

The supervisor and other town board members have discussed the Chapter 253 amendments as if they allowed “outdoor dining” in Riverhead for the first time, although sidewalk cafés have been permitted by the code since 2004 and the amendments do not make permanent the temporary waivers previously approved, nor do they expand outdoor dining opportunities except to add the Village Center zoning district.

At a Sept. 21 public hearing on the proposed code amendments adopted Tuesday, Aguiar said the amendment was the result of “an effort myself, the building department and the fire marshal took this effort under COVID to help our stress distressed restaurants when they were limited in capacity and food service.”

The town’s efforts were “very, very swift” and “very, very successful,” Aguiar said during the hearing.

“But what we want to do here is those restaurants that comply with all the local regulations, that we’re going to make that permanent, and this will help the restaurant. It has helped them,” she said.

Councilman Rothwell commended the supervisor for the effort. “This really was, early on, this was a lifeline to restaurants during the holidays. And it was an effort for restaurants to be able to survive financially, to be able to utilize the outside dining. And it’s proven successful. And so we want to continue for them to have that opportunity,” Rothwell said.

Councilwoman Catherine Kent at the hearing described the proposed amendment as “a win win” for restaurants and the community.

“I think this is really fabulous. I’m excited to make this permanent,” she said, adding that it is something “I have always advocated for along with the (downtown revitalization) committee because this helps create more of a vibrant downtown and gets people moving about in the downtown area,” she said.

“Whenever you drive through a town or a village and you see outdoor dining, it just makes that place more inviting,” Councilman Tim Hubbard said. “I think it’s gonna do wonders for downtown and help those restaurants.”

Town Attorney Robert Kozakiewicz at the Sept. 21 public hearing pointed out that the previous waivers the board adopted were an “amnesty wherein people were allowed to do outdoor dining that would fall outside the scope of Chapter 253.”

The code amendment before the board was an amendment of Chapter 253, he noted. Kozakiewicz detailed the revisions that were part of the amendment before the board — the addition of Village Center, the changes in the office that receives the permit and the office that issues the permit, the establishment of an annual term and the increase in the application fee to $150.

Before voting on the resolution adopting those amendments Tuesday night, Aguiar said the code change was “long coming.”

“We kept on extending the outside dining and extending it. And this is the right thing to do for restaurants,” she said before voting yes on the amendment.

Kent echoed the sentiment. “I’m glad we can do untying to help our businesses downtown,” she said before she cast her vote.

The resolution passed Tuesday in a 5-0 vote. The other board members voted without comment.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.