Walking a tightrope? Policies in store for sidewalk business use

SINGLE FILE — Concern over café-style seating on the sidewalk in front of Beth’s Café has led Bridgton Selectmen to consider adopting a formal policy governing the use of sidewalks in front of all downtown businesses.

SINGLE FILE — Concern over café-style seating on the sidewalk in front of Beth’s Café has led Bridgton Selectmen to consider adopting a formal policy governing the use of sidewalks in front of all downtown businesses.

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Bridgton Selectmen are struggling with the question of just how lenient the town should be in allowing Main Street merchants to use the sidewalks.

At their last meeting, the board stopped short of any policy that would impose fees, or fines. But most selectmen agreed that some kind of rules are needed. Ideally, such rules would still allow businesses to use the sidewalks, as long as the use doesn’t get in the way of pedestrians.

The debate over sidewalk use began over a month ago, when Mike Tarantino raised concerns over the two café tables and chairs placed on the sidewalk in front of Beth’s Café.

Café owner Beth Doonan had received permission from Bridgton Selectmen to create outdoor seating on the side of her 108 Main Street building, using two parking spaces in the adjacent parking lot. But questions lingered over whether that permission also included the sidewalk in front, which is rather narrow.

Doonan maintains she has permission. However, when selectmen considered her request, they agreed that outdoor seating “is contingent upon safe use of the lot, and her agreement to make modifications as necessary,” according to the minutes of the Feb. 26 meeting.

Rather than focus on any one business, the board asked its planning director, Anne Krieg, to draft a general policy. Krieg proposed fees from $50 to $175 a year for merchant use of sidewalks, whether it be seating, sandwich boards or merchandise. In addition, the policy suggested that violators be fined up to $100 for each offense.

Selectman Bob McHatton was quick to respond that Bridgton wasn’t ready for that level of regulation.

“When this originally came up, it was because some people were saying it was hard to walk along Main Street” because of obstructions in the sidewalks, McHatton said. “I don’t think we need to regulate this. This is just another issue of taxing a business that’s trying to bring in business” to the downtown, he added.

Considering the recent emphasis on the need for marketing of the downtown, such a policy sends the wrong message, McHatton said.

Many business owners are also property taxpayers, noted Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz, and as such they deserve separate consideration from that of mobile vendors who don’t pay any property taxes.

“This is becoming a new battlefront between bricks and mortar and mobile vendors,” he said.

Krieg said her draft policy recognizes that sidewalks, as public ways, are owned by the residents of the town. “However, as the downtown is (nicely) growing and expanding and is in full bloom this summer,” the interests of all business owners should be considered, the draft policy states. Such business owners would need to first obtain a permit before placing anything on the sidewalk, the policy recommends.

But even Tarantino, who first raised the issue, didn’t think the business owners operating out of buildings should need to pay a fee. “They have a hard enough time making it as it is,” he said.

Selectman Ken Murphy agreed, saying, “Sidewalk sales have always been a big part of the business in downtown. I can’t see penalizing the merchants.”

Unlike the sidewalk in front of Beth’s Café, the sidewalk in front of Renys department store is much wider, and Selectmen Bernie King suggested that Renys may even own the wider portion of sidewalk where they currently display their merchandise.

Sandwich boards are a separate matter from other types of structures, the board agreed; the town’s policy regarding sandwich boards has long been to allow their use during the day, as long as they are brought in at night.

Krieg said she has been working with the Community Development Committee on the issue, and that its members believe the town can come up with a policy that would allow limited use of sidewalks, based on measurements of available space.

The CDC will meet with Krieg to “tweak” the policy, and bring it back for selectmen to reconsider. 

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