Ferndale to allow sidewalk dining downtown, differs on cost

The Bellingham Herald

In an effort to make Ferndale more vibrant, restaurants can now set up outdoor seating on downtown sidewalks — as long as business owners pay the city $400.

Ferndale City Council approved an ordinance Tuesday, Sept. 8, that allows sidewalk dining for downtown restaurants, an area west of the Nooksack River on or around Main Street.

The ordinance is part of a city plan to make downtown Ferndale an “urban, pedestrian-friendly center,” and bring more life to the streetscape, said Jori Burnett, Ferndale director of community development.

“People-watching is a central part of what people do,” Burnett said, “and it’s something we want them to do in Ferndale.”

Some City Council members, however, worry that charging businesses a $400 fee defeats the purpose.

“I think the $400 fee sends the message that we really don’t want downtown dining to happen,” said council member Jon Mutchler. “It seems like the wrong message to send to those businesses.”

Some restaurants downtown, like Good Burger and Chihuahua Family Mexican Restaurant, already have outdoor seating, but not on the sidewalk. The new ordinance allows the businesses along Main Street to put tables and chairs out on the sidewalk if they leave 4 feet of unobstructed space for people to walk past.

The city estimates around eight restaurants would be eligible to have sidewalk dining. First, though, they would have to apply to the city and pay $400 — consisting of a $200 encroachment fee, and $100 for the time the city spends reviewing and inspecting the proposal. The rest, $100, would go toward a business license fee. An additional $70 per year would be required to keep that license.

Burnett said $400 is comparable to the price of sidewalk dining in other cities that staff looked at while considering the idea.

Bellingham, however, only asks $50 for a sidewalk dining application.

Good Burger owner Matthew Trott said $400 may be too much for the restaurants along Main Street.

“I already have seating outside,” Trott said. “If they told me I had to pay 400 bucks to have people sit outside, I think that’s a bit much.”

In a council meeting Sept. 8, Mutchler moved to reduce the total fee to $50.

That motion failed with a 3-3 vote. Mutchler and Cathy Watson, both running campaigns for mayor, were two of the three council members to vote for the reduction.

Keith Olson, one of the council members to reject the idea for a $50 fee, said he did so because he trusted the city staff’s estimates of the cost for the review process. A $50 fee for sidewalk dining, the staff said, would not cover time spent reviewing applications and inspecting businesses.

He thought there were other reasons for the proposal to reduce the fee to $50.

“It being an election year, all kinds of weird stuff is being proposed,” Olson said in an interview. “I think that was an election-year stunt to garner votes.”

Mutchler, responding to Olson’s comments, said he made the proposal because $50 sounded reasonable for a business to pay. He said he was disappointed Olson made it political.

With or without the fee, some downtown restaurant workers aren’t so sure there’s even enough room to set up tables and chairs outside. Alex Pantoleon, manager of Cedars Restaurant and Lounge, doubted the restaurant would add sidewalk dining.

“To tell you the truth, there’s not much of a sidewalk in Ferndale,” Pantoleon said.

Burnett said he still anticipates some businesses will take advantage of the ordinance. As for the $400 fee, he said there’s a chance City Council reduces it in future meetings.

“We don’t consider ordinances written in stone,” Burnett said.

Reach Wilson Criscione at 360-756-2803 or wilson.criscione@bellinghamherald.com.