The Zoning Board heard why the restaurant want to be exempt from town rules
After two and a half hours of sometimes emotional testimony, the Zoning Board Tuesday night continued the public hearing to July 27 on The Patio’s request to formally change from a cozy 21-seat indoor restaurant to a more commodious 42-seat all-outdoor restaurant, trading the current tent for a permanent pergola.
The Patio opened in February 2020, just a month before the COVID-19 pandemic descended on Rhode Island and restaurants in the state were ordered to shut down in-person dining. Like most restaurants, the Patio pivoted to take out; in May 2020, when restaurants were allowed to reopen with strict capacity limits and the town relaxed zoning restrictions – including the normally required number of parking spaces – The Patio erected a large tent in their parking lot. That allowed the restaurant more space for tables to reach the maximum COVID-allowed capacity.
As regulations loosened over the months, allowing for additional capacity, The Patio was able to add more seating under the tent until it was serving many more diners than would have been possible pre-pandemic, as well as offering live music, comedians, and trivia nights.
Not surprisingly, the owners – Jason and Angel Winpenny – want to keep their expanded capacity. But now, as East Greenwich heads back to a state of pre-pandemic normalcy, The Patio won’t be able to keep the expanded dining space without approval from the Zoning Board. That’s because the restaurant is required to provide one parking space for every three seats and the tent is sitting on the restaurant’s only parking spaces.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the Winpennys were represented by attorney Nicole Martucci of Duffy & Sweeney, LTD, who emphasized the need for an outdoor dining area due to lingering COVID-19 fears. She argued that many customers would rather dine outside than inside.
“Even though the indoor dining restrictions are slowly being lifted,” said Martucci, “it’s becoming apparent that many people in the community would prefer to have the safety of outdoor dining and the peace of mind that comes with that.”
Some members of the Zoning Board questioned how hesitant customers would be to eat indoors, given the state’s high vaccination rates and loosened restrictions. There are no more limits on indoor dining in Rhode Island.
Board chairman Rick Land said he read through several letters of support written by members of the community, and that “while some of them suggest that they feel safer or like the environment [of The Patio], the vast majority of those just like the fact that The Patio is there.”
He added, “They like the outside dining. They like the band … Those are common human reactions to something that is nice and enjoyable, but it’s not a basis for us to grant relief to the zoning ordinances.”
Land mentioned the same kind of argument could be made for any other business “that has cramped facilities and wants to expand their footprint in a parking lot.”
The Zoning Board, he noted, upholds the laws established by the Town Council. Restaurant owners frequently apply to the Zoning Board for what’s called “parking relief” from those Town Council-established laws, especially on Main Street, where onsite parking lots are rare. For instance, across Main Street from The Patio, Filippou’s Twisted Pizza has an awning that extends over what was once a small parking lot for that space. They have no on-site parking now and offer no valet service but got permission from the Zoning Board two years ago based on what they argued was the in-and-out nature of their business.
The Patio wants to build a permanent pergola over their parking area and they have decided to use a valet service and have gotten leasing contracts for a total of 25 parking spaces in two separate parking lots – one on Main Street and one on Marlborough. That would provide more than one space for every two diners. Under the current regulation, they need a 1:3 ratio – that’s 7 spaces for 21 seats or 14 spaces for 42 seats.
Parking has not been an issue for The Patio over the past year but that most likely will be changing soon. Since the start of the pandemic, customers of The Patio have been able to use the parking lot right across the street at 455 Main Street because Red Stripe closed in March 2020. However, a new restaurant, Union & Main, will be opening up there in coming months.
At the meeting Tuesday – which was virtual – after Martucci’s presentation, Land opened the meeting to public comment, asking those in favor of The Patio’s request to comment first. Several employees of The Patio spoke of their commitment to the restaurant and said they did not want to be laid off due to a conflict over parking spaces and said business was really good. Other commenters suggested that many customers could walk or rideshare to The Patio, so the additional parking spaces might not be needed.
Land stopped the meeting at 10:30 p.m., citing the lateness of the hour. Since public comment was not over, the meeting was continued to Tuesday, July 27, with an earlier start time of 6 p.m. to accommodate additional public comment.
One further wrinkle for The Patio is that they have been offering live music for months but have not applied for an amplified music license, according to town officials. They di have an entertainment license. Town officials say the owners erected a stockade fence and installed a new sign without permission. The sign has since been taken down. The Winpennys say they were unaware permits were needed.
And getting parking relief is only the first step toward a permanent larger restaurant. If the Zoning Board grants The Patio the parking and capacity relief, they would then need to submit a new application to the board for zoning relief for the pergola and to the Historic District Commission for its stamp of approval on the pergola.
Aiza Shaikh, a newly minted EGHS alum (Class of 2021), has been an EG resident since 2008. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, traveling, and eating coffee ice cream.