Final Thoughts on the Patio
Things were particularly dire when the COVID-19 pandemic forced Blend 111 to close in 2020, and our revenue dropped to zero overnight. Restaurants are challenging businesses in normal times, generating single-digit operating profits if they are lucky. To loud cheers, the Vienna Town Council adopted an emergency ordinance in June 2020 to temporarily provide waivers for outdoor business activity due to the impacts of COVID-19. Our building owner worked with us to develop not just an outdoor dining space but a beautiful and unique destination. A local nursery donated plants and planters to help make the area unforgettable. We added string lights, patio sails, and new furniture to create a safe environment for guests.
For eighteen months, we made the patio work. We added heaters and provided guests blankets in the winter to allow them to continue having some everyday experiences during a brutal pandemic that has taken over one million lives in this country.
When the Town Council adopted the emergency ordinance, there were few restrictions on using the space or the hours. As a result, Bazin's (next to our patio) hosted birthday parties, wedding receptions, and other life events on their patio. These gatherings were allowed under the emergency ordinance; however, the larger patio, frequent nature of the activities, and noise generated from these events led to growing frustration from the residents. While initially, the neighbors remained silent to support the restaurants, they began to complain as the noise and events became more frequent. They began to lobby for eliminating all outdoor dining at 111 Church Street.
In December 2021, at the public hearing to extend outdoor dining, we first learned about these frustrations from the residents. We had never received a noise complaint. Our patio, utterly distinct from Bazin's patio, was only 800 sq. feet. We did not use ADA parking spaces, host private events, or seat groups over eight. We identified an alternative for parking to provide additional nearby parking for the areas we consumed. We thought that we were doing everything correctly.
The Town Council voted in December to continue outdoor dining for six months through June 30, 2022, and evaluate the situation. Hours on the patio were restricted, requiring outdoor dining to end by 9:00 pm on the weekdays and 9:30 pm on the weekends. Amplified music was prohibited. Nothing was done to limit events or the size of the groups. However, we took further steps to avoid the movement of tables to decrease noise and reduce the total number of tables on the patio. One of our staff members accidentally turned on our outdoor music at 4:45 pm on a weekday. We promptly received a noise violation from the Town. That was our single violation from the Town, and we never received any other written or verbal warnings.
We also had the opportunity to visit the neighbor's backyard and hear the noise on a busy Friday night. Standing next to the property line, about 30 feet from the home's screen porch, we could listen to occasional glassware and flatware against the tables. We also heard humming from the commercial HVACs units on the tops of the buildings on Church St., trucks buzzing along the street, and people talking outside a neighboring building. Living so close to a commercial district will involve noise. That is the trade-off of living so close to Town.
Over the past few months, we proposed several additional restrictions to the Zoning Commission and Town Council as a compromise solution to satisfy the resident's frustrations and our needs as a business. We also recommended that instead of universal restrictions, a conditional use permit process would allow a site-by-site analysis of outdoor dining. All these proposals fell on deaf ears.
Our patio is also not directly adjacent to the residents. The Town of Vienna owns the property between the homes and the commercial area and could have explored the creation of noise abatement technology or a barrier to reduce the noise and satisfy everyone. These ideas were not examined.
Our patio was essential because COVID-19 cases continue to ebb and flow. At the public hearing to decide the fate of the patio, one Town Council member still wore a mask, as did many members of the Planning and Zoning Commission and several residents in the chamber.
Most residents and guests have understood that the pandemic upended life for everyone. Flexibility, understanding, and problem-solving approach are preferable to picking winners and losers.
We deeply regret that our representatives on the Town Council could not work toward a compromise solution and that reasonable safeguards were never implemented at the onset of the emergency ordinance. The Town Council reportedly received hundreds of emails from community members over the past six months supporting the continuation of the Blend 111 patio. Still, unfortunately, those voices were not loud enough to move the majority of the Town Council. Instead, the will of a tiny minority was adopted. The decision significantly damages many more residents, businesses, local employees, and the Town's ability to demonstrate the importance of cooperation, community, and tolerance.