Town Looking for Ways to Allow More Outdoor Seating at Restaurants During COVID-19

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Watertown City Hall

Watertown Town Hall

Restaurants could soon be reopening for in-house dining, but they will have limited capacity due to the state’s COVID-19 protocols. Watertown officials have started looking for ways to allow for restaurants to have outside seating, and how they can streamline the application process.

Under the four phase plan outlined by Gov. Charlie Baker last week, restaurants would be allowed to reopen in phase 2, but would have to allow for social distancing inside the restaurant which would reduce capacity. This phase would start, at the earliest, three weeks after the start of the reopening plan, which began on May 18.

Allowing outdoor seating at restaurants that do not have it currently, or expanding it at those that do, requires approval for both zoning and licensing changes.

Town Attorney Mark Reich told the Town Council Tuesday night that the change to allow outdoor seating is essentially a request for expanding restaurants’ footprints. The Town’s Zoning Ordinance, he said, allows for such a change through a change to special permit, rather than getting a variance which would be a more complicated process.

In terms of the licensing change, currently it would have to be approved by the Watertown Licensing Board and then the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission (ABCC), which overseas liquor licenses.

However, the State Legislature is considering legislation that would eliminate the requirement for approval from the ABCC, leaving the decision a the local level, Reich said.

Town Council President Mark Sideris said the Licensing Board met last week, and the board’s chair, Donna Doucette, said she would be willing to hold a special meeting to hear requests to allow outdoor seating at restaurants. Sideris added that he would be willing to hold a special Town Council meeting, if need be, to allow for the outdoor seating.

Another thing that would slow the process, Reich said, is the requirement for filing a public notice of the requested change 10 days before the meeting. Town officials are looking at ways to change that.

“We will see if we can speed up the hearing process by addressing multiple license holders at one time so we can try to make this as quick as possible,” Reich said. “We still have to be mindful of the legal requirement, but we are in communication with the ABCC, and having discussions about issues on the administration side.”

Other Items

Town Budget

The Council will be holding a special meeting on June 8 at 6 p.m. where Town Manager Michael Driscoll will present the Fiscal Year 2021 Town Budget to the Council. The budget is normally presented in April, but has been delayed because of uncertainties about state funding due to the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak and shutdown.

Class of 2020 Proclamation

On Tuesday, Town Council approved a proclamation honoring WHS seniors and declared June 5, 2020 “Watertown High School Class of 2020 Day.” A copy of the proclamation will be put in the “swag bags” handed out to seniors on May 28, which is their last day of classes.

Fire Maintenance Fund

The Council approved a transfer within the Fire Department Budget to increase the Fire Maintenance Fund by $35,000. The money is required to pay for maintenance on the WFD’s ladder trucks.

The purchase of a new ladder truck was approved in Sept. 2019, and was to be delivered within 13 months, but the COVID-19 outbreak will likely extend the wait. Fire Chief Bob Quinn said that both the WFD’s ladder trucks went through inspections in March, and required about $68,000 worth of repairs to make sure they are safe and fit to respond to a fire.

The WFD moved $28,000 from other accounts to help pay for the ladder truck maintenance, but needed more money for other unforeseen maintenance. Quinn requested the $35,000 to be transferred from the Full Time Salaries Account. The Fire Department has had some vacancies, which left a surplus in that account.

Town Attorney Extension

Watertown’s Town Attorney firm, KP Law, will be retained for another two years after the Town Council approved the extension on Tuesday. The firm has served that role for since 1993, and performs similar roles for 141 municipalities, Driscoll said. They provide specialists in areas such as contracts, real estate and land use, and March Reich serves as the lead attorney for the town.

Councilor Lisa Feltner asked if the Council could get a copy of the contract. Reich said there is no contract, but rather the firm is retained on at-will basis. Councilor John Gannon wondered how much of the town’s appropriation the firm uses each year. Driscoll said that for the past several years the amount that KP Law has billed the Town has been less than the amount appropriated for legal services. The firm also provides free seminars for the Town Council on issues such as open meeting law, public records and conflict of interest.

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