Opinion: Yes to outdoor dining, but no to amplified outdoor entertainment

Outdoor seating at a Stratford restaurant in 2015.

Outdoor seating at a Stratford restaurant in 2015.

Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticut Media

In May 2020, recognizing the crisis Connecticut’s restaurants were facing due to COVID-19, Gov. Ned Lamont wisely loosened restrictions on outdoor dining.

Expanded outdoor dining has been a great benefit to Stratford residents and restaurateurs. Diners enjoy the ambiance and increased security of eating outside. Restaurants have grown their businesses significantly and are far busier. No problems such as patrons consuming alcohol beyond outdoor dining areas or blocking access to sidewalks have been reported.

Restaurant owners deserve the opportunity to solidify their gains. So, anticipating the end of Lamont’s executive order, they are lobbying the town to loosen its current regulations. Stratford’s regulations presently limit outdoor seating to 20 percent of indoor patron floor area. This is too restrictive and should be expanded to protect restaurateurs’ investments in outdoor dining and their expanded customer base.

However, restaurant owners are also lobbying to end the prohibition on outdoor entertainment. They propose to change zoning regulations by removing the text, “There shall be no live or recorded music played or projected outside the establishment.” This current language protects residents living next door from amplified loud bands, DJs or karaoke, and removing it would make addressing noise complaints far more difficult.

Things in Stratford have been quiet for the last few months, but earlier this summer there was significant noise from amplified outdoor entertainment at the Seawall and Stratford Center. Prior to the pandemic, restaurants at the Dock Shopping Center and Short Beach also played loud music outside.

A number of Stratford restaurants are nestled in residential areas. The restaurant owners’ proposal would give them blanket permission to play amplified music that would impact nearby residents.

Stratford already has a process in place for restaurant owners wishing to offer outdoor entertainment: they can apply for a permit to do so. Nearby residents then have the opportunity at a public hearing to address the proposal’s impact on the neighborhood’s quality of life. The Zoning Commission then decides how best to serve the common good. This process should not be short-circuited by granting all restaurants a blanket permission for outdoor entertainment.

Proponents of such a blanket permission argue that existing noise ordinances protect neighborhood interests, but this argument is not reasonable. The police department is unlikely to prioritize noise complaints on a busy weekend night when such complaints are most common.

Enforcement involves workability issues as well. The Stratford Police Department would have to invest in a number of sound meters at the cost of several hundred dollars each. Moreover, a number of police officers would have to be trained and certified in their use in order to enforce the ordinance. This would be a questionable use of the town’s limited financial and staffing resources better spent elsewhere.

Stratford’s neighboring municipalities protect residential neighborhoods by limiting or prohibiting outdoor entertainment. Trumbull permits it only in one location along Route 111, and Shelton permits entertainment at venues on Bridgeport Avenue. Stratford has no local roadway comparable in width or traffic speed to these streets. One Shelton establishment bordered by residences has a permit only for low-level background or acoustic music.

Fairfield does not permit outdoor entertainment except for one annual event at a bar in a residential neighborhood. Despite heavy regulation by police, this event is widely considered a blight on the neighborhood.

Bridgeport and Milford do not permit outdoor entertainment. Stratford likewise should continue to restrict outdoor entertainment. Background or acoustic music that does not impact neighboring properties can be allowed. But amplified music such as karaoke or rock bands belongs indoors and should be allowed outdoors only if a permit is granted.

Correction: This piece initially said incorrectly that the Zoning Commission will discuss outdoor dining at its Oct. 27 meeting.

Joseph Gerics is on the Stratford Planning Commission and is a candidate for that office in this year’s election.