Zoning laws mulled

Mary Wutz, co-owner of Queen Street Grocery, shows where the tables were set up. Wutz said nearly 1,000 people have signed a petition to allow seating outside the store.

Charleston is poised to expand sidewalk dining into residential neighborhoods, but some City Council members worry that the result could be a public nuisance.

A new ordinance that received preliminary approval this week would allow stores that sell food, such as corner groceries, to request zoning approval to put tables on public sidewalks.

The legislation was proposed after the city required Queen Street Grocery to remove a few small tables from the sidewalk at Queen and Logan streets. Sidewalk dining is prohibited in residential neighborhoods, but people who live near Queen Street Grocery protested that they enjoyed the seating and wanted it back, according to Mayor Joe Riley.

"We had some small, European-style tables out on the sidewalk," Mary Wutz, co-owner of Queen Street Grocery, said Thursday. "We noticeably did a few hundred dollars more business each day when we had them outside."

That was back in April, before the city discovered the zoning violation.

"Then we got reprimanded and had to take them down," Wutz said. "We were really disappointed when we found out about the rules."

Several council members worried at a meeting Tuesday that allowing sidewalk tables in residential areas would result in people sitting outside corner stores drinking beer.

"I know what's going to happen," said Councilman Robert Mitchell, whose district includes the East Side.

Mitchell and Councilman James Lewis both said the ordinance would "open up a can of worms."

An amendment was added to the ordinance prohibiting consumption of alcoholic beverages in residential sidewalk dining areas, but Mitchell, Lewis and Councilmen Jimmy Gallant and Tim Mallard opposed the ordinance nonetheless. The ordinance received initial approval with an 8-4 vote.

The city already allows restaurants to obtain permits and put tables on public sidewalks in commercial areas, where sidewalks are wide enough, and businesses can put tables outdoors on their own property. Citywide, 13 businesses have sidewalk dining permits.

Charleston decided to allow sidewalk dining in 2004, eight years after banning the practice because of complaints about litter and cluttered walkways.

The new ordinance would require a petition from at least 25 neighborhood residents in order to obtain a zoning permit for residential sidewalk tables.

Wutz said nearly 1,000 people have signed a petition aimed at allowing sidewalk seating outside her store, and she's already filled out an application for the proposed zoning exception. Final approval of the rules is anticipated when City Council next meets Oct. 13.

Her neighbors, including Riley's former administrative assistant Laurie Thompson, urged the city to change the regulations.

"When they were told they couldn't have the tables, I went over and offered to help," Thompson said Thursday. "I don't think anyone in the neighborhood is against it."