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Fairfax County board approves permanent regulations for outdoor dining

Silver Diner in Fair Lakes has a temporary outdoor dining area in its parking lot (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Restaurants in Fairfax County are officially free to set up temporary outdoor dining areas as they wish — provided they adhere to a handful of new regulations.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a zoning ordinance amendment on Tuesday (Feb. 6) to create a permanent outdoor dining program, codifying many of the more relaxed measures that the county adopted to help local eateries stay open during the pandemic.

“Integrating outdoor dining into the county’s regulations has the potential to enhance the pedestrian experience, activate street-level environments and contribute to the vibrancy of commercial areas,” the county said in a news release announcing the approval.

As of 12:01 a.m. yesterday (Wednesday), when the amendment took effect, restaurants and other food service establishments can provide temporary furniture for outdoor dining on patios and sidewalks by right, meaning they don’t need the county’s permission specifically for that use.

They can also have outdoor dining areas in parking lots with an administrative permit, which can be approved without public hearings and comes with a lower application fee of $205 than the minor site plan approval previously required.

In all cases, the outdoor dining area can be at most half the size of the restaurant’s indoor dining area, a slight change from the emergency rules that have been in place since July 2020 to limit the spread of Covid. County staff recommended setting a maximum size based on floor area, instead of 50% of the occupancy limit, because it would be easier to gauge compliance.

The outdoor dining area’s operating hours should match those of the main restaurant to ward off noise issues, Lily Yegazu with the county’s Department of Planning and Zoning told the board.

Outdoor dining areas must also maintain access for pedestrians and people with disabilities and obtain a fire marshal’s permit for tents bigger than 900 square feet. Businesses aren’t required to provide additional parking, but they still need to meet the minimum number of spaces required for the site.

“It makes good sense to me,” Dranesville District Supervisor Jimmy Bierman said of the proposed regulations.

The board’s vote preceded a March 1, 2024 expiration date for the uncodified ordinance that eased regulations for outdoor dining, among other allowances, during the pandemic. The ordinance could stay in place for up to a year after the county’s state of emergency ended.

When initially presenting a proposal for permanent outdoor dining in October 2022, county staff reported that 91 businesses had implemented outdoor dining during the pandemic, but by Sept. 1 of that year, only five sites were confirmed to still be using parking spaces for that purpose.

Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) Vice President of Government Affairs Che Ruddell-Tabisola testified that having permanent guidelines will encourage more businesses to invest in outdoor dining, which expanded across the D.C. region and the country during the pandemic.

“Expanded outdoor dining has been wildly successful in its efficiency and efficacy of maximizing the use of outdoor space,” he said. “Additionally, outdoor dining is popular among Fairfax residents, and we have not yet maximized either the demand or capacity for outdoor dining.”

Ruddell-Tabisola praised Fairfax County’s “commonsense approach” to the permitting process for outdoor dining, adding that RAMW has cited the program “as the model for other jurisdictions to follow.”

Area localities that have approved permanent outdoor dining regulations in recent years include Arlington County, the cities of Alexandria and Falls Church, and the towns of Vienna, Herndon and Leesburg. Fairfax City has a seasonal pilot program that offers permits for outdoor dining areas that can operate between March 1 through Nov. 30.

The embrace of outdoor dining is “one of the good things to come out of the pandemic,” Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity said.

“There weren’t many good things, but this is [one],” Herrity said before the board voted. “I want to thank staff for jumping on this right away early in the pandemic with the temporary rules and great job here.”

Though the new rules are already in effect, the county is giving restaurants with existing outdoor dining areas until April 30 to get them in compliance.

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