Orange County

The town wanted more outdoor dining. So why are some Hillsborough merchants upset?

A plan to permit more outdoor dining and make downtown a livelier place to visit isn’t going as expected.

Many didn’t understand how it would look until furniture and fencing was installed, said Kim Tesoro, chief executive director of the Hillsborough-Orange County Chamber of Commerce. The chamber has met with businesses and residents to seek solutions, she said.

“While our restaurants who have complied with the ordinance have done a beautiful job, it is very impactful, and we’ve got surrounding businesses who are unhappy and residents who are unhappy,” she said.

The most common complaints are about people and furniture creating pedestrian hazards, the potential for alcohol consumption outside designated areas, and the outdoor activity making it look like some stores aren’t open or accessible, she said.

Others think the individual patios are “a little overdone, too big, not historic, and don’t continue Hillsborough branding,” Tesoro said.

Some businesses had sidewalk dining before the town of Hillsborough set up its permit system, but officials said that often created conflicts with tables and chairs being moved into pedestrian pathways. Catherine Wright Town of Hillsborough

The current rules require businesses to have a clear pedestrian path of at least 6 feet — 4 feet if there are trees, hydrants or other obstructions between the seating areas and the curb. That keeps sidewalks accessible for people with disabilities and meets N.C. Department of Transportation requirements.

Businesses also must define outdoor seating areas with some sort of barrier.

There is no fee for a permit, which must be renewed once a year, or whenever a business makes changes. The penalties for violating the rules can range from a written warning or a 30-day permit suspension to a permit revocation and $500 fine.

Only two businesses — Panciuto and The Wooden Nickel — have installed permitted seating since the rules went into effect in January. Roughly a dozen others have seating, but it’s not been permitted and some of it violates the rules.

A low cedar planting wall surrounds two sides of the outdoor dining area at Panciuto restaurant on North Churton Street in Hillsborough. Some Town Board members and residents have said they expected sidewalk dining barriers to be more opaque. Tammy Grubb

‘At home here’

Local residents Ashley Amodei, 23, and Ella Dodson, 24, see sidewalk dining as another step to creating a welcoming environment.

“We sit out here and we see people walk by that we know, and we say hi. It makes it feel like an intimate small town,” Dodson said.

Especially if they get out of work late, they don’t want to have to drive to Durham or Chapel Hill to have a drink after work, Amodei said. The women noted how Franklin Street has changed a lot over the years and doesn’t have the same vibe.

“We feel at home here,” Amodei said. “Especially Wooden Nickel is our favorite.”

An older Hillsborough couple who did not want to be named said the streetscape looks nice but it could be inconvenient on a busy day or put pedestrians within splashing distance of cars in the rain.

Another couple visiting from out of town said the outdoor dining areas remind them of downtown Blowing Rock and other places in the mountains.

Finding a happy balance

Other Triangle cities already offer outdoor dining, although some, including Chapel Hill, are taking another look at their policies. In Raleigh, recent rule changes made just two years after a lengthy debate appeared settled are raising concerns.

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Hillsborough wants its restaurants and merchants to be happy, leaders said, but sidewalks also need to be safe and welcoming. Mayor Tom Stevens has urged staff to deal with furniture in the pedestrian right of way soon.

“This is one of those good problems to have [in] that we’re trying to find a way for all of these local businesses to thrive whether they’re retailers or restaurants,” Commissioner Jennifer Weaver said. “We’re not dealing with Applebee’s and Starbucks. These are all homegrown restaurants that are trying to make it.”

The town will require any downtown business that wants to keep or add outdoor seating to get insurance and file an application with at least a vague plan by Aug. 30. The town is considering the removal of any furnishings within 6 feet of the curb after that date.

In September, town staff and the chamber will bring proposed revisions to the board. Planning Director Margaret Hauth said it could take a little longer to make changes.

The town’s Historic District Commission (HDC) also will talk about its potential role Aug. 22. The commission, although it reviews changes to the downtown historic district, doesn’t have the authority to review removable furnishings, including fencing. The materials that have been used so far would meet the commission’s requirements, Tesoro said.

Seeking compliance

Several businesses have been told they need to comply with the rules, economic development planner Shannan Campbell said.

Staff is reviewing applications for King Street Bar and Radius Pizzeria, she said, and talking with four businesses: Cup a Joe, Matthew’s Chocolates, Bandidos and La Place. Some are waiting to see if the rules change before making an investment, she added.

Mystery Brewing and Hillsborough BBQ Company, which has seating on Nash Street, also are considering their options, but Stephanie Trueblood, public spaces manager, said they may have a grace period until construction along the street is finished.

Some of the existing barriers are not as open as she expected, Commissioner Kathleen Ferguson said, and it would be good to offer more guidance about what the town wants.

“We do not want to be as prescriptive as you’ve got to have the Cary way of doing things — two lollypop trees, and that’s all you can do, and three types of wood — [but] I do think that creativity comes out of restriction,” she said.

Trueblood said simple options could be planters and ropes instead of fencing. She already is planning small changes to a problem area where the historic cobblestone sidewalk meets concrete near 108 N. Churton St.

The town also is encouraging retailers to add sidewalk displays during business hours, Campbell said.

“Retailers can put out a manikin, a piece of art, some type of a display outside their store to indicate when they’re open,” she said.

Weaver cautioned against too many restrictions.

“I’m very hesitant of getting too [controlling about] what you can and can’t do, which is why I’m pretty wary of having this go to an HDC review,” Weaver said. “Another piece of that is we’re an artist community, that’s a strong part of our identity, and this is another opportunity to foster that.”

What are the rules?

Tables should be adjacent to the storefront

Barriers must be used around seating areas

A 6-foot sidewalk must remain clear; 4 feet where there are trees and other obstructions

4-foot paths to a store’s front door are required

Merchant displays can be up to 3 feet from the building during business hours