Commission Considering Expansion of Drinking Freedoms in Athens

By Luke Dixon

Drinking alcohol in Athens could become less restrictive in the near future, at least the area where you are permitted to do so.

The Athens-Clarke County Commission is set to consider making consumption of alcohol easier and allowing additional outdoor portable signage at sidewalk cafes in Athens.

The original sidewalk café ordinance was adopted by the City of Athens in 1979 and has been amended three times since then in 1994, 2003 and 2011. There are two types of sidewalk cafes as defined by the Legislative Review Committee’s proposal. One is a common area café on College Square, Walker’s which have open space in front of the bar property.

The proposed amendment to the ordinance also states that “cafés attached to the building which are limited to 50% of the sidewalk width and must allow a minimum of 5 feet for a pedestrian path, alcohol is allowed, and dividers are required” according to the commission report and recommendation.

The current ordinance calls for required physical barriers and railings that are placed outside the cafés to mark the territory where patrons can consume alcohol on the sidewalk and patio area.

There are multiple parts to the proposed amendment of the existing ordinance. The first part would allow an option of a physical barrier to be put up or sidewalk cafés no that are not in downtown Athens proper, but rather outside the downtown district. The Legislative Review Committee has proposed two zones– one in downtown, one for the rest of Athens-Clarke County outside of downtown.

The major difference is bars outside downtown wouldn’t require a physical rail boundary. Instead they could use a non-physical marker throughout the sidewalk that would mark where patrons could and could not drink. This would allow sidewalk cafés like Go Bar, which is located on Prince Avenue outside of downtown, to not have to put up a physical barrier on the sidewalk drinking area of their properties since it would fall under the scope of the outside downtown cafés.

The second part of the amendment would allow a place like Creature Comforts Brewery, which is located at the intersection of two streets and has its property on both streets, to be able to apply for a sidewalk café permit on both streets.

The third part of the proposed amendment states that owners of the establishments will be responsible for enforcing the boundary at their particular establishment. This means that any obstruction of the boundary i.e. a person crossing over the boundary could result in a fine to the owner/permit holder of the café. The fourth part of the amendment would eliminate the required pressure washing of the sidewalk by each sidewalk café.

During their discussion, the commissioners agreed with many of the provisions and amendments to the sidewalk café structure in downtown, but some also had some reservation and concerns.

Commissioner Jerry NeSmith was wary about the new boundary requirements outside of downtown. He questioned who would be held liable for any misteps and making sure patrons would be made aware of the new boundary. NeSmith requested the city manager and others proposing the amendment clarify the exact boundary requirements for those cafés.

“I wonder if we should require a sign that tells [patrons] because otherwise if no one tells them, then they’re just not going to know,” NeSmith said.

Commissioner Andy Herod shared the same concern and asked Athens-Clarke Attorney, William Berryman, about the enforcement of the proposed policy.

“I still believe if the patron steps out on the sidewalk, with an open container, that patron is going to have full responsibility,” Berryman said in response. “The government might be able to take an administrative action against the owner of the establishment for not giving the warning, but it won’t change the responsibility of the person with the actual open container.”

From a business standpoint, Jake Fisher, the manager of The Cabin Room, formerly known as The Bury, thinks the physical barriers are necessary to most bars downtown. He said that more space could allow for a less restricting barrier and that if a café has the space, like Creature Comforts Brewery for example, to allow freer roaming drinking space, they should do so.

“I think it has its pros and cons as far as clearing up some sidewalk space and allow some of these bars to expand out for the people who do like to go outside and drink a beer,” Fisher said.

Customers and in particular University of Georgia students would favor expanded drinking space, especially in the warmer months, according to UGA students Brandon Estroff and Logan Booker.

Estroff, said the idea of having more space is great even though it likely won’t effect him following graduation in May.

Booker on the other hand was ecstatic to hear of the possible expansion.

“I think it would just be a more lively atmosphere,” Booker said. “Just being outside in general is more of a festive drinking, not just drinking, but more of a social setting. In spring and fall in Athens, it’s nice to be outside.”

The proposed change in the sign ordinance calls for wall mounted board signs and additional sign allowance for all Athens sidewalk cafés.

These are signs that include menus and drink specials among other information, according to the Legislative Review Committee’s (LRC) report. The LRC is recommending that sidewalk cafes be permitted to use mounted wall signs to display menus and specials outside that are currently on portable signs that are placed outside during a businesses operating hours.

Presently, the ordinance does not allow for mounted wall signs that do not count against a café’s allowed signage space. If the mayor and commission approved the proposed amendment to signage ordinance, the mounted wall signs would not count against sidewalk cafés allowed signage space. The mounted wall signs would be restricted to one per business, two per property if the businesses are stacked on top of each other like Taco Stand and Blue Sky was the example Girtz described during discussion. Each sign would not be able to exceed six square feet.

During the discussion, three commissioners raised concerns about the proposed sign ordinance proposal. Link wanted to clarify the difference between signs and posters under the sign ordinance citing many of the downtown business owners concern of not wanting to further hinder their business’ signage and display, with more upcoming construction in the downtown area.

“I’m hoping that we can tweak our ordinances or at least clarify what constitutes art and what constitutes a sign in the very near future because we are going to be seeing some big giant retaining walls popping up in our downtown area and I know that it would be nice if we had the opportunity to brighten them up a little bit without jumping through a bunch of hoops,” Link said.

Herod was concerned that the change in the downtown sign ordinance could affect the proposed café boundary or hinder the marking of the boundary and Girtz was concerned about the content neutrality of the signs.

“Legally speaking, if they allow one type of signage, they have to allow all type of signage in the public space because we have to have content neutral approach,” Girtz said.

The additional signage allowance would be welcomed by sidewalk café businesses, according to Fisher.

“Having a hanging sign would alleviate some of the problems because when it does get busy, sometimes those signs can get trampled and get in the way,” Fisher said. “It’s happened before where I’ve been to other places where it happens. I’ve seen it happen at our bar, other bars.”

If the commission approves these measures at their montly April meetin, it will allow sidewalk cafes with the space and ability outside of downtown additional space in the outdoor and patio area of their establishments. All bars will be able to hang additional signage without hindering the walkway. It will also give more freedom for their customers to enjoy an alcoholic beverage outdoors just as spring fully arrives in downtown Athens.

Both amendments to the ordinance were tabled for further discussion at the Mayor and Commission’s March 17 agenda setting meeting. They will continue to discuss the proposal during their April monthly meeting.

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