Downtown Herndon could keep outdoor dining beyond pandemic

Outdoor dining (via Melissa Walker Horn/Unsplash)

Outdoor dining could be here to stay in downtown Herndon.

Town Manager Bill Ashton is exploring ways to permanently implement outdoor dining, which was initially approved to help businesses survive during the pandemic and minimize COVID-19 transmission — a process that he says requires more research into legal and logistical ramifications.

Vice Mayor Cesar del Aguila kickstarted a public discussion to encourage restaurants to continue outdoor dining at a Herndon Town Council meeting Tuesday night (March 15).

“The rumor mill is we aren’t doing outdoor seating,” del Aguila said at the meeting. He asked the council to add the item for discussion at the meeting, prompting Town Mayor Sheila Olem to note that the agenda was otherwise full and that rules of decorum must be observed by all council members.

Del Aguila asked the town to determine a target date for a decision on outdoor seating, noting that at least four businesses are waiting for answers from town staff on how they can continue outdoor dining for their restaurant.

Ashton noted that the legal implications of opening town property up for private outdoor dining must be considered prior to pursuing a permanent shift. The decision carries zoning, parking and safety considerations.

He said the redevelopment of downtown Herndon — which Comstock is expected to begin this spring — will make parking a highly limited commodity in the area.

“This spring, that entire parking lot is going to go away,” Ashton said, adding that parking on some parts of Elden Street is going to be at a high “premium” from a symbolic standpoint.

In the past, the town has let restaurants use town property — including parking areas — to pursue outdoor dining. But with Fairfax County currently in low COVID-19 transmission and public health restrictions lifting, the discussion on outdoor dining has taken a different flavor.

Del Aguila pushed town staff to come up with a permanent solution, noting that some businesses were frustrated by conflicting information from some town staff about the issue.

Ashton said businesses can be considered for minimally intrusive outdoor dining allowances before the town establishes a more robust program. That method could help the town avoid legal and logistical issues.

“All businesses aren’t created equal in this,” Ashton said.

Olem also said the town must balance the public’s desire for the redevelopment of downtown Herndon with the push for outdoor dining.

“It’s not an either/or,” del Aguila responded, adding that outdoor seating will drive business into downtown.

The meeting took occasional forays into points of contention — particularly between Olem and del Aguila — who sought to determine if town council members should be seated by vote totals from their election.

Olem said she had hoped del Aguila would have brought up the issue at a previous council roundtable.

Photo via Melissa Walker Horn