LEWISTON — New rules under consideration would expand the use of sidewalks for business uses, making it easier for restaurants to offer outdoor dining and even retail stores to set up merchandise outside.
City staff said the pandemic has led officials to consider permanent updates to Lewiston’s ordinance relating to sidewalk occupancy, and councilors were supportive this week of proposed changes they said could make for a more vibrant downtown.
Councilor Zack Pettengill was fully on board. He envisions people walking down Lisbon Street, looking through items outside a few stores and then sitting down at a local restaurant.
“These are the small, simple steps that revitalize economies,” he said. “It’s always these small decisions that are overlooked.”
David Hediger, director of Planning and Code Enforcement, said the ordinance was not written with businesses in mind, and was instead geared toward permitting for construction activity in the public right of way. He said the goal is to “clean it up” so there’s a clear difference for businesses using sidewalks for dining or retail.
Most councilors said the rules should make it clear that businesses have the option of using sidewalks in front of their storefront, as long as they maintain a passable right of way according to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Mayor Mark Cayer said this week that he believes if you own a business in Lewiston, with a sidewalk that’s wide enough, “this should be an automatic thing.” He’d like to see business licenses feature a box that owners can check if they intend to use the sidewalk, and can be given additional information on the requirements.
“We should take that extra step to be business friendly in this community,” he said.
Most councilors also want to see the permitting fees axed, or at least shelved for a year.
Hediger said the proposed changes would lower a requirement for passable sidewalk to 5 feet, which he said would give businesses an extra foot of space and still maintain ADA requirements. The proposal would also allow businesses to expand into the sidewalk in front of neighboring businesses, with permission.
Officials also appeared supportive of expanding the ordinance outside the downtown Centreville district into other zones. Hediger said the change could allow small neighborhood shops or restaurants to also take advantage of the rules.
Following this week’s discussion, staff will discuss the ordinance changes with other departments, namely Public Works, to build consensus on the final language, Hediger said.
What remains unclear is whether the updated language will allow the activity year-round. Hediger said Tuesday that Public Works had expressed initial concerns relating to activities like plowing and street sweeping.
“We know some businesses have been successful in operating year-round in an outdoor environment, and we want to try to allow that to occur on city sidewalks,” he told the council Tuesday.
Last year, the council passed a resolution allowing staff to work with businesses to expand operations when needed, including onto municipal rights of way, and public or private open spaces and parking areas. The resolution was extended in November as patrons remained interested in dining outdoors. However, the city’s ordinance was never officially amended.
Hediger said the ordinance has not been referenced often, but said requests during the pandemic to occupy sidewalks identified the need to “improve the process.” He told councilors that “Part of the thought process is to get a more lively, engaged sidewalk to occur out there.”
“Hopefully it’s something that as the economy turns around, people will take advantage of it,” he said Thursday.
Asked if there had been any complaints regarding the use of sidewalks, Hediger said there were a few complaints related to barriers obstructing the ability for people to open their car doors when parking on the street.
Hediger expects the final language to go in front of the City Council in June.