Santa Monica city staff are mounting a full-court press to clarify the details of a fast-approaching shift from current temporary outdoor dining rules to new, permanent guidelines that begin Oct. 1, but many business owners remain frustrated and confused — and some are still hopeful the City could reverse course before imposing new fines and restrictions.

Following lengthy public comment from Third Street Promenade restaurateurs, staff and patrons during the Tuesday, Sept. 13, Santa Monica City Council meeting, staff launched outreach including a pop-up informational event about parklets — the outdoor dining areas that took over parking lanes beginning in 2020 as a solution to COVID-19 indoor dining restrictions — held last Friday, Sept. 16 (the day after the deadline to apply for the program), a six-page FAQ document about the new Santa Monica Outdoors Program, and two webinars to share details about new fees, restrictions and changes.

When the switch is flipped on Oct. 1, participants in the temporary program who completed applications for the permanent version can continue operating their existing parklets, but businesses that did not file paperwork in time must have their parklet spaces cleared or face removal by city employees.

“By September 30, you do have to remove your items from the street, because your permit is no longer valid,” Swartz said of restaurants and other businesses that did not apply for the permanent program by Sept. 15. “And the city  can come in and remove things. For example, if there’s concrete barriers, they can be removing those.”

The outlook was not good for late applicants, Swartz added.

“You will have a shot to apply, anyway … just know that you will have a gap in your operation and the city may even remove some of the elements there,” Swartz said. “Our priority is getting through these provisional [permits] and getting the people who have applied up and going and so, if you missed that deadline, you could still apply but just know we have about 70 applicants ahead of you and so it’ll be a while before we can get you.”

The 70-or-so businesses that met the Sept. 15 deadline have until Feb. 28, 2023, to come into compliance and pay all necessary fees to continue operating. 

That will mean getting approval from the risk management, mobility and public works departments, receiving planning approval, getting a public works “stamp” and earning an economic development license — but that is just for parklets that do not require more in-depth approvals.

Parklets that propose to use propane heaters must earn a special approval from the fire department; those that use electrical lights, even strands of string lights, or any canopies or tents (excluding umbrellas) must earn building and safety approval; and those that serve alcohol must go through the planning department.

Of particular note was the building and safety permit needed for canopies, which Swartz said was best to avoid if possible.

“I really encourage everyone to try to use umbrellas, because the building safety review for these items will be very extensive and it could trigger other building upgrades,” Swartz said. “For example if you’re adding more dining could potentially trigger adding another bathroom which is very costly. So we’d encourage umbrellas for that.”

One of the biggest sticking points for business owners and managers who attended the Sept. 20 webinar was the timing and reasoning behind the parklet fee structure. Up to this point, parklet fees had been waived as a pandemic measure, but some new fees begin Oct. 1, with others spread out over the five-month transition period.

By the end of the transition period on Feb. 28, businesses that want to retain use of their parklets must have paid a number of fees including one-time plan check fees ($500), a refundable security deposit ($3,500), an annual public works inspection fee ($252.66), a monthly license fee ($2.12 per square foot per month) and a whole slate of additional optional fees like a one-time building and safety plan check fee if there is a canopy or electrical ($626.78) or an annual fire department propane cylinder permit fee if using outdoor gas heaters ($358.85). 

Far and above the most costly fee is the one-time wastewater capital facility fee of $1,358.49 per seat for full service restaurants and $1,132.08 per seat for fast food restaurants (that do not employ waitstaff). 

“This is a one-time fee for the city to know the wastewater that’s generated by the establishment,” Water Resources Manager Sunny Wang said. “So, there’s fees for — whether it’s a single family home remodel, a restaurant, a commercial hotel, with a different set of fees that’s calculated … this is determined by the City of LA since all of our wastewater currently is conveyed and treated at the City of LA’s Hyperion Treatment Plant, so we use the criteria that they have established on each of these types and how much wastewater is generated.”

Businesses who moved tables from inside to outside but did not cause a net increase in seating do not need to pay additional fees, Wang clarified. 

“Now, this fee only applies if you have a net increase impact,” Wang continued. “So, for example, if you have 40 seats … indoors right now in your restaurant and you decide you want to move 20 of those outside, so your total is still 40, you wouldn’t be assessed this fee.”

A representative from Blue Plate Oysterette presented a specific query: according to David Kianmahd, the business maintains seating both indoors and in the parklet, but only uses indoor seating when it is raining and outdoor seating is closed, never increasing the net customers.

Swartz and another city staffer, Joshua Carvalho, said it would not be an issue — but Cavalho added perhaps the restaurant should place signs on indoor tables indicating they are not open to guests.

Other business owners questioned why they have to pay the same wastewater fees even though they are open with more seats but for more limited hours than they were prior to the pandemic. In response, Wang said it was crucial that the City be paying for the maximum expected wastewater usage. 

Speaking at a Q&A on Thursday, Wang said a single fee was the only solution.

“Unfortunately, we can’t factor in how your business operates because there’s no way for the city to dictate that as well,” Wang said. “And in conversation, I believe, with another restaurant earlier in the week, they had said, ‘Well, my water usage hasn’t changed,’ you know, but they stopped lunch service, they only do dinner service now. Believe it or not, that’s actually more problematic for a wastewater system because you’re discharging the same amount of volume in a shorter time now, meaning you’re actually sending more peak loads in our wastewater and that creates, actually, a larger problem or concern for us to be able to manage that to make sure the system doesn’t overflow.”

More information on parklet rules is available at santamonica.gov/programs/parklets.

emily@smdp.com