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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

Surprise: Outdoor dining illegal in Anna Maria City

If you are one of the many people who enjoyed a fine meal outdoors at an Anna Maria restaurant this past weekend, don't be upset to know that you and the establishment that served you that nice dinner are breaking the law.

Anna Maria city commissioners learned at their Oct. 14 worksession that under the city code's definition of a restaurant, all areas for the preparation and consumption of food for patrons must be "wholly contained within the permanent exterior walls and under the permanent roof" of the restaurant building.

Oops! Tell that to the folks at the Sandbar, Waterfront, Rotten Ralph's, Rod & Reel or the Anna Maria City Pier Restaurant.

The commission only discovered the definition after the Tropical Treats Restaurant on Gulf Drive received a special exception permit from the commission for beer and wine sales, and wanted to put some tables outdoors for diners.

Commissioners were at the worksession to amend the definition to accommodate those restaurants already allowing outdoor dining, but even with just three commissioners present, they were unable to reach a consensus.

Looks like the city is in a tough spot, commented Commissioner Duke Miller.

"If we enforce the code the way it reads, we'd have to close down a lot of restaurants. Do we really want to close the Sandbar?" he asked.

Commissioner Linda Cramer said she didn't want to "bust anybody's chops" but in her opinion, the city needs a permit ordinance that requires site plans and approval.

"That's for another agenda," replied Miller. The problem is what do about those restaurants violating the law. "Either we revise the code or shut them down."

Maybe not, said Commission Chairperson John Quam. The code has not been enforced. He suggested adding an exception to the ordinance to exempt restaurants currently with outdoor dining, although he said he worried about new restaurants adding such a feature.

Hold on a minute, said Miller. "This is Florida." That goes with outdoor dining.

Indeed, said Mayor SueLynn. "Part of the Anna Maria charm is outdoor dining."

Cramer said she understood that, but Tropical Treats "does not meet parking requirements." She suggested the commission go back and start over with a new definition and procedures for outdoor dining.

Does that mean every restaurant stops outdoor dining until the problem is resolved? asked Miller.

"No, just that everyone is non-conforming," said Quam.

Cramer said she wasn't at the commission meeting that granted a special exception permit for beer and wine to Tropical Treats, and suggested that the commission stop that restaurant from outdoor dining, but all others were OK.

Sounds like selective enforcement, said Miller.

It's not really illegal, said City Attorney Jim Dye, but it does raise a big issue.

Cramer then raised the issue of zoning compliance at Tropical Treats, but Quam said to stay with the agenda issue.

After nearly an hour's worth of discussion, commissioners were still divided on a new definition of a restaurant and agreed to move the issue to another workshop, when Commissioners Carol Ann Magill and Dale Woodland would be present. "We haven't accomplished anything," he observed.

In the meantime, the commission consensus was to continue to allow outdoor dining without any enforcement of the code.

Special use permit
The discussion of the Tropical Treats restaurant continued in another agenda item.

The restaurant had asked the code enforcement officer to state where the city's codes prohibited package sales of beer and wine.

"How have we gone from an ice cream store to a restaurant to package sales?" inquired Cramer.

Miller didn't think Tropical Treats was asking for package sales, just wondering what code applied. He said he would change his vote for the special exception if he thought Tropical Treats wanted package sales.

Not to worry, said Cramer. The zoning for that area does not permit package sales.

Lawsuit 'fit to be dyed'
The three commissioners also grappled with finding a new attorney to represent the city in the lawsuit filed by Robert and Nicky Hunt for the city's denial of their site plan at 303 Pine Ave.

Commissioners Magill and Woodland have previously expressed concern because Dye had said during the site plan approval meeting that the Hunts plan appeared to meet the city's codes. Woodland thought an outside attorney, rather than Dye, might better represent the city in the lawsuit.

Dye noted the city needs to respond in court by Nov. 5 and a new counsel needs to "get up to speed" very quickly.

Dye said he only gave the city his "best legal advice" at that time, and clients are always free to "accept or reject" legal advice. It would not stop him from defending the city, but the issue is up to the commission.

Cramer said Woodland had wondered how that would "play out" in court, while Miller added that Woodland had said Dye "supports the Hunt's position."

That's not the case, said Miller. Dye only said that the site plan appears to meet the code.

Fearing another legal mess, Cramer said the issue is only over the commission's interpretation of the code. Rather than go find another attorney at this late stage, she didn't mind if Dye represented the city.

Quam and Miller agreed, and the consensus of the three was to have Dye attend the Nov. 5 court session. The commission can always reconsider at a later date, they noted.

After a long hiatus from commission agendas, the eight-decades-old problem of parking returned, with Quam saying he's already identified locations for half of the signs needed in a new traffic regulation the commission has agreed upon. He asked for volunteers to finish the project, and thought it could be done by the public works department.

SueLynn thought this was an ordinance issue, not administrative, but Miller sided with Quam.

Cramer eventually volunteered to finish the project, but Public Works Director George McKay said he'd make it a simple issue and complete the work on his own time.

Commissioners agreed and Quam said that he hoped that when the data is complete, it doesn't turn into another "parking document" with another "meeting" on the parking issue.

The commission has already agreed to go forward with the signage and locations.

Australian pines
Commissioners heard from SueLynn that the city could face a liability issue for Australian pines on city property that fall onto private property and cause damage. The city might even be liable for pines on private property that cause damage when felled.

She suggested the commission might want to adopt an ordinance regulating Australian pines on private property, but commissioners declined to make that leap, except if a serious safety issue was involved.

The mayor said she'd develop a plan to protect the city's liability and commissioners could review the document at a future workshop session.