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Temporary patios return for the season

The road is once again clear for local restaurants, bars and wineries to open outdoor patios when spring returns to Niagara-on-the-Lake this year.
Sunset Grill and other Queen Street patios will be back for another season.

The road is once again clear for local restaurants, bars and wineries to open outdoor patios when spring returns to Niagara-on-the-Lake this year.

The town is looking at how to make this fixture of the pandemic era a permanent feature — potentially at a cost to business owners.

The municipality has approved renewal of its temporary, seasonal patio licensing program, implemented back in 2020 to allow places to operate while adhering to Ontario’s COVID-19 physical gathering restrictions, without jumping through the usual regulatory hoops.

Three years later, outdoor patios are still a hit among diners in town. Sunset Grill on Queen Street is one of 33 spots in NOTL to open an outdoor patio during the pandemic, and co-owner Kim Gauld said it’s still an important feature of the business, giving its guests who aren’t yet comfortable dining indoors another option.

“It’s added an extra energy to the street, too. We’ve been getting a lot of good feedback from residents and visitors alike,” she said. “The program overall, I think, is such a good addition for the town.”

That positivity was echoed at the Jan. 24 general committee of the whole meeting, during a discussion on the patio program.

“I’ve heard nothing but positive things,” said Coun. Wendy Cheropita. “It’s been helpful for the business community to extend their space, but also, people love being outside.”

The committee unanimously voted to extend the temporary patio program for a third time. Until Feb. 28, 2024, businesses can either apply to open a patio or renew their permits for those that are already established.

Following direction from a town report on the patio program, councillors also voted for staff to investigate how Niagara-
on-the-Lake should implement a permanent patio program, including design standards for patios, the process for accepting applications, and the costs associated with operating a permanent program.

“I think it would be a great opportunity for us and for the town,” Gauld said. “It makes the streets seem lively, I like the bright umbrellas that everybody has … it adds a European flair to the Old Town.”

Currently, there is no fee to apply for a permit. According to the report, town staff “will need to review the current program to assess whether fees will be implemented for future seasonal patio permits.”

The report mentions key financial implications of the program, namely lost revenue from patios occupying municipal paid parking spots and the cost of staff time and resources.

“Based on similar programs requiring zoning reviews, site inspections and coordination of permits across multiple departments, it may cost up to $50,000 in staff reports,” the report reads, based on an estimated cost of $1,200 to $1,500 per permit and 15 to 20 hours of processing time.

Gauld said it’s to be expected that keeping their patio for good will involve a lot of work with the municipality, and that a potential fee would be fair — provided it’s comparable to earnings the town would lose from its paid parking spots.

“We think it would be worth it,” she said. “There’s nothing to suggest anything’s not going to be fair. They’ve been open to discussion.”

The idea of potential changes to the program, such as charging fees, was enough to encourage a debate between councillors on the wording of staff’s recommendation, opting to create and pass a motion which, as Coun. Erwin Wiens said he fears, “would paint us into a corner.”

“I can’t say I support a permanent seasonal patio program when I don’t know what it is,” said Coun. Gary Burroughs.

Almost every town department would need to be involved in the process, explained chief administrative officer Marnie Cluckie: planning services, operations, fire and emergency services and the clerk’s office.

The discussion ended with staff tasked with presenting a report to council on the permanent patio program at a later date.