People dine outside in downtown Edmonds on Dec. 8. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

People dine outside in downtown Edmonds on Dec. 8. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

Edmonds council cuts short meeting on $4,000 ‘streatery’ permits

The city was weighing whether to half new permit fees for outdoor dining. But a citizen comment curtailed the discussion.

EDMONDS — What was slated to be a final meeting on Edmonds’ streateries ended abruptly Monday night.

The only thing on the agenda was an amendment to the city’s new rules for the outdoor dining structures that occupy the public right-of-way, typically parking spots. If approved, it would have cut in half the cost of a newly mandated $4,000 permit. It also would have extended the permit expiration date and allowed businesses to pay in monthly installments.

The price tag drew the ire of Mayor Mike Nelson, who issued a statement last week saying Edmonds “now has the shameful distinction of charging restaurants the highest permit fee in the nation.”

The cities of Bellevue and Kennewick have some of the highest streatery permit fees in the state, sitting around $450, according to a city presentation. Some cities — including Seattle, Kirkland, Shoreline, Everett, Anacortes, Langley, Bothell and Renton — have no permit fees.

The council called for a followup meeting Monday. But Councilmember Vivian Olson made an early exit after an Edmonds resident, Finis Tupper, questioned the meeting’s legality during public comments. Tupper said state law requires a council majority of four to call a meeting.

A stickler for open government laws, Tupper previously sued Edmonds in 2007, 2010 and 2015, alleging the city violated the state’s Public Records Act; in 2014, alleging a salary commission was illegally organized; and again in 2020, alleging city council violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.

Councilmember Will Chen said he was also uncomfortable taking part Monday. The meeting started at 5 p.m. and adjourned around 6:20 p.m., with no action taken.

“I do think it is a shame we have allowed one citizen to hold us hostage, to hold a meeting hostage (and) not take the advice of our attorney,” Councilmember Laura Johnson told The Daily Herald.

The council did not set a date to reconvene to discuss the proposed amendment Monday. Council President Susan Paine said after two meetings in a row with the same outcome, she’s not expecting any change.

The mayor is trying to remain optimistic.

“I was holding on to hope that some councilmembers could come to a compromise, and I’m going to remain hopeful that they will revisit this,” Nelson said after the meeting.

Meanwhile, downtown business owners still have until Dec. 31 to come up with the cash to keep their streateries through the end of April.

For many, $4,000 for four months of providing customers the option to dine alfresco is a stretch.

“Our goal right now is to provide safe outside dining,” said Erika Barnett, co-owner of Salish Sea Brewing. “And we don’t believe we should be paying a premium for trying to provide a health service to our community.”

Outdoor dining has served as a life preserver for many Edmonds restaurants amid the pandemic — and remains popular with patrons — though some local business owners have argued the program should be temporary.

Paine said she supported having the meeting, as did three other councilmembers, Will Chen, Laura Johnson and Adrienne Fraley-Monillas.

Chen said one of Laura Johnson’s tweets suggested there were only three councilmembers in favor of holding the meeting. She pointed to the agenda, sponsored by Paine, saying three councilmembers in addition to the sponsor called for it.

City Attorney Jeff Taraday said it was his understanding that four councilmembers called it.

Councilmembers Diane Buckshnis and Kristiana Johnson did not attend.

Fraley-Monillas said that, in the future, she did not want to see city business grinding to a halt because “a few councilmembers cannot go to a meeting.”

“This is what we do,” said Fraley-Monillas, who lost her bid for re-election. “And it’s not about somebody not being here. I mean, we saw Ms. Olson log off based on a private citizen’s comments.”

Last week, Edmonds City Council members adopted an ordinance continuing the streateries program through the end of April, while tacking on the $4,000 fee. Business owners were given until the end of the year to come up with the cash.

The figure came from Chen’s calculation of the value of the parking spaces based on commercial real estate rates. Councilmember Kristiana Johnson said she supported the fee because she felt it was “more limiting” than the existing $110 street use permit.

Some councilmembers “weren’t satisfied with how it ended up,” Laura Johnson said. “I felt I could’ve done better.”

Laura Johnson spearheaded efforts to get the council to reconvene and reconsider their decision, with a new proposed expiration date of May 31, 2022.

Paine said she felt a sense of urgency to revisit the issue after she saw social media chatter about online fundraisers to support businesses that couldn’t front the fee.

Monday’s special meeting was supposed to be an opportunity to do right by the community, councilmember Laura Johnson said.

“It’s shameful,” she said. “It’s embarrassing. It’s not why I got into public service.”

Downtown business owners have grown tired of the debate.

“I’m looking forward to actually getting back to running a restaurant,” said Chef Shubert Ho, who operates several restaurants in downtown Edmonds, “instead of trying to convince City Council that this is something they should keep. … It was a colossal waste of time and effort on my part.”

This month has been full of passionate public comment and social media posts about the future of streateries. City officials and Edmonds residents have spent over five hours discussing the topic in public meetings.

Many restaurant and bar owners said streateries were the reason they stayed in business throug the pandemic. Others argued parking spaces are more important.

“We lost our parking and our sidewalks shrunk,” said Edmonds resident Kathy Brewer at last week’s council meeting. “… It’s cold and rainy and the streateries sit empty most of the time, taking up valuable space and blocking storefronts and mountain, sound and ferry views — which we all love about Edmonds.”

Restaurant owners and managers like Ricardo Bobadilla, general manager at Santa Fe Mexican Grill & Cantina, said they felt obligated to keep the streateries. The pandemic isn’t over, and many customers prefer sitting in the open air.

Last week, health officials said the Omicron variant of the coronavirus had been detected in the county. Snohomish County Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters projected it would overtake the Delta variant in the next month or two.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance suggests outdoor dining, coupled with distancing tables 6 feet apart, slightly lowers the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

“I just think this is something that’s best for the city — thinking of employees and families,” Bobadilla said Monday. “I mean, the other day it was a cold Friday night and it was packed outside. I feel like I’m handcuffed.”

Salish Sea Brewing owners Jeff and Erika Barnett felt the same obligation, but said the $4,000 fee isn’t doable.

“Frankly this should never have been all about finances, it should’ve been about accomodations for people,” Jeff Barnett said. “Now we’re not able to. We cant accomodate certain guests, and it’s sad.”

Restaurant owners spent weeks “trying to express to us all of the challenges that inherently exist in the restaurant industry, especially during the pandemic,” Councilmember Laura Johnson said.

Many business owners said the fee was “cost-prohibitive.”

In the meantime, businesses are getting creative to stay afloat.

Those who keep their streateries will be participating in a January promotion called Après Edmonds an incentive to eat and drink in the streateries for a chance to win a new pair of skis, Ho said.

The mayor said the city will also pursue creative solutions to support businesses.

“As long as COVID’s still here,” Nelson said, “we in city government have to adapt and be creative to make sure our public stays safe and our economy can still function.”

Isabella Breda: 425-339-3192; Twitter: @BredaIsabella.

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