After months of political wrangling, a City Council committee last week approved a bill to regulate the District's growing number of enclosed sidewalk cafes, but the fight over a controversial "grandfather" exemption for existing structures is expected to spill over to the full council.
Council Member David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which drafted the bill, said Friday he would urge the council to delete the grandfather provision "because that creates an unfair advantage for existing sidewalk cafes over their competitors who chose to wait for the law."
In addition, Clarke said, "some of them are downright ugly."
Under the proposed bill, new enclosures would have to meet strict standards for construction and size and would have to be taken down during certain months of the summer season. Existing enclosures would be allowed to continue operating and would have to meet only fire and safety regulations.
The city's legal position involving enclosed sidewalk cafes has been muddled since 1977 when the D.C. Superior Court ruled that the city lacked "objective standards" for the cafes and enjoined the District from enforcing its rules.
Since then, the city has done little to change the rules until now and more than 25 sidewalk cafes have put up a variety of enclosures ranging from installing permanent wood and glass structures to stringing flimsy plastic around outside tables.
The grandfathering provision was approved on a 3-2 vote.
Clarke and Council Member Jerry A. Moore Jr. (R-At-Large) voted against the provision while Council Members H. R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), John Ray (D-At-Large) and Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8) voted for it.
Crawford, at a recent meeting of the committee before last week's vote, contended that existing enclosed sidewalk cafes have increased their sales, resulting in more taxes for the city. He said forcing the restaurants to meet the new standards would "pose hardships" on them.
"We're talking about the lives of individuals," Crawford said. "It's one thing to sit in here and make laws and another to run a business." And, Crawford added, "I don't think we should penalize the businesses that have brought nightlife and jobs to our city."
Ray noted that the city hasn't "refused to take their taxes."
Ray and Crawford have been the leading proponents of a relaxed law for the existing cafes.
But Council Member John A. Wilson, whose central city Ward 2 has many of the enclosed cafes, appeared before the committee recently and urged that the grandfather provision be rejected.
He said the original 12-month grace period for compliance with the law was "more than being kind." He said that Ward 2 residents aren't opposed to sidewalk cafes but object to the ones that take up large portions of sidewalks, creating noise, safety and other health hazards. Wilson said he would oppose any portion of the bill that allows existing sidewalk cafes longer than 12 months to comply with the new standards.
"We're going to have a big, bloody battle on the bill," Clarke predicted.