Coastal Commission weighs in on outdoor dining at Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey

Peninsula Premier Admin

MONTEREY — On Fisherman’s Wharf, outdoor dining is a matter of public access. But whether the open air add-ons augment or curb accessibility depends on who you ask, with restaurants fighting for the former as state regulators present arguments otherwise.

By the end of the year, that question will come to a head as restaurants grapple with a Dec. 31 deadline to secure appropriate permits or say goodbye to their expanded spaces.

For now, the city of Monterey and restaurateurs are hopeful a compromise can be found. Hard-to-meet guidelines laid out by the California Coastal Commission, however, are rattling businesses’ confidence.

“The pressure’s on,” said Sal Tedesco, who’s been a restaurateur on Fisherman’s Wharf for decades. “It’s already tough as it is as a restaurant. We’ve had to reinvent ourselves all the time after COVID to keep doors open. We don’t need even tougher regulations from the Coastal Commission.

“It’s going to be a tough battle. I think it can be worked out, but it’s going to be a tough battle.”

A problem with permitting

In May, the city of Monterey notified Fisherman’s Wharf businesses that they must obtain coastal development permits for outdoor seating, which are not newly required but rather recently enforced by the Coastal Commission, or face removal. Well within California’s protected Coastal Zone, any construction — or changes in the intensity of use of land or water — on the wharf necessitates discretionary approval.

Expanded outdoor dining is a qualifying development.

Amid the pandemic, regulations were loosened to some degree, as many jurisdictions across the state applied for and were granted waivers from the Coastal Commission to authorize outdoor dining programs and other COVID-19-related emergency measures. Those waivers for outdoor dining were extended until December 2023 by last year’s Assembly Bill 61. Yet no such waiver applies to the wharf, and therefore any outdoor dining there that wasn’t already authorized by a coastal development permit is unwarranted.

According to the Coastal Commission, that includes most of the outdoor seating currently set up on the wharf.

“More research would be required to give an exact number, but our records indicate that very few (restaurants) are authorized with a (coastal development permit),” wrote Mariana Filip, Central Coast planner for the Coastal Commission, in an email to The Herald.

The state agency gave restaurants until the end of the year to right the regulatory oversight, prompting city officials to begin working with businesses on the permitting process. And it’s a doozy.

Businesses must first submit an architectural review application to the city delineating their plans, Monterey planning department director Kim Cole explained. From there, if applicants pass the initial step with the city, they then file for a coastal development permit with the Coastal Commission.

Cole said “the permitting process is streamlined at the city level.” Obstacles to moving forward are, instead, coming down from the state.

Significant issues

Earlier this year, while preparing a permit application submittal checklist for wharf restaurants, the city sent a draft version to the Coastal Commission for feedback. In response, the agency sent a letter to the city in July that cited “significant” Coastal Act and Local Coastal Plan Land Use Plan consistency issues. The commission argues that these issues — essentially any outdoor dining not allotted in an existing coastal development permit — are hampering use of the wharf.

“As you know, a number of restaurants on the wharf have installed outdoor dining areas without the benefit of a coastal development permit, some of which are quite large, and all of which appear to be impeding general public access on the wharf,” the letter reads.

Problems raised by the Coastal Commission are threefold. First, the agency contends that permitting the added seating would result in a conversion of use. Because Fisherman’s Wharf is located over public trust lands granted to the city of Monterey, the area is reserved for public access, not private use by restaurants.

The Coastal Commission also maintains that placing extra structures would obscure the viewshed on the wharf. Finally, the agency is concerned with an intensification of use, namely an increased demand for water and parking brought on by more business accommodations.

Regarding the availability of water, Cole pointed to a rule suspension by the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District that allows businesses to install outdoor seating on a 2-to-1 ratio to their indoor seats. She likewise assured that there is enough parking within the city’s waterfront parking lot to accommodate “a few more seats out on the wharf.”

Solving Coastal Commission qualms with access and viewshed is a little more tricky, with solutions offered by the agency seeming more complicated to businesses and city officials than the seating dilemma itself.

Restaurants on Fisherman's Wharf have until Dec. 31, 2022 to secure coastal development permits for their outdoor dining spaces or they will have to remove their expanded seating. (Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald)
Restaurants on Fisherman’s Wharf have until Dec. 31, 2022, to secure coastal development permits for their outdoor dining spaces or they will have to remove their expanded seating. (Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald)


In its letter, the Coastal Commission concedes that “in the event public services could be demonstrated, both in terms of parking and water … it is possible that some limited dining may be permittable.” But the agency qualifies its admission with a condition that other types of public access and viewshed improvements would need to be made for outdoor seating to be approvable.

The Coastal Commission proposes the creation of a public walkway along the exterior of the wharf — similar to Morro Bay and its Harborwalk.

Surely, the agency’s letter alludes that a walkway is not the only improvement option. And a later clarification from a spokesperson confirmed that “the Commission is open to other solutions that would ensure public access and allow for some expanded outdoor dining.” A coastal development permit allotted to the former Scales restaurant, for example, authorized outdoor dining on the business’s second floor, with its first-floor deck dedicated to general use.

Recognizing the possible logistical and financial challenges associated with any sort of equalizing measure, the Coastal Commission suggests that the city undertake a broader planning process with the wharf to identify alternatives. But again, that kind of comprehensive effort would entail significant city resources.

Cole explained that while the city “is always open to new capital improvement projects,” those ventures — particularly on the wharf — are often not quick or easy.

“What I want to be clear about is that constructing new improvements in the coastal area that don’t currently exist today require fairly extensive permitting processes,” she said. “It’s possible to obtain, but it typically takes a long time to add onto wharf structures. And I don’t think that’s what we’re looking to do here. We’re looking for minor modifications to existing restaurants to allow for outdoor seating.”

The city is supportive of outdoor dining on the wharf, she emphasized. But the steps to get there are tempering businesses’ response to tepid at best.

Sitting or standing: what’s the difference?

To date, the city has received one outdoor seating application from Kokomo’s, which was incomplete and sent back by staff. Overall, Cole said the city “has not had an overwhelming response from businesses.”

Chris Shake, who owns both Kokomo’s and Old Fisherman’s Grotto on the wharf, said that although he’s drafted plans to expand outdoor seating at his cafe, he’s unsure if it’s worthwhile moving forward any further.

“I have a real issue with the process set up by the Coastal Commission,” he said.

In preparation for the permitting process, Shake said he retained an architect to help shape his draft proposal who, in turn, informed the restaurateur that the endeavor would be “cost prohibitive.” And, to compound hesitation, Shake likewise anticipates a long waiting period before any coastal development permits are approved.

Asked about the usual timeline and cost of securing a permit, a Coastal Commission spokesperson said with so many variables at play, they could not estimate either factor.

Shake said even if he looked past individual complications, he also just simply takes issue with the Coastal Commission’s perspective that outdoor dining deters public access.

“I totally disagree that (outdoor dining) limits public access. … That’s not a fair or accurate statement to make,” he said. “In fact, what they are saying is the complete opposite. (Outdoor seating) enhances public access for people coming to the wharf and visiting the Monterey Peninsula.”

Shake’s frustration is shared.

Sal Tedesco reasoned that through the pandemic, “outdoor dining has become key in today’s world,” adding that his restaurant Paluca Trattoria now hosts 50-55 (unpermitted) outdoor seats. Tedesco explained that he has tried to obtain a coastal development permit before but that “the roadblocks are so hard, it’s like throwing a dart.” He doesn’t think he can successfully apply again until he sees more leniency from the Coastal Commission.

“What’s the difference between sitting down or walking by?” he questioned. “There’s plenty of coastal access. To me, it’s ridiculous.”

Dominic Mercurio, who owns Cafe Fina and Domenico’s on the Wharf, is decidedly against applying.

“It’s just a waste of time,” he said. “I’d rather let someone else try and do it. … I’m just going to remove my outdoor seating.”

Meanwhile, the city is hoping there’s room to alleviate some stress on businesses, and maybe give owners extra time before the deadline to remove seating expires. Monterey City Manager Hans Uslar said that the Monterey City Council will have a chance to weigh in on outdoor seating at Fisherman’s Wharf at its next regular meeting on Oct. 4. There, staff will present a suggested letter to the Coastal Commission for approval by the City Council “that will address our hopes and wishes, and give the restaurants an opportunity to operate in the current scenario for another 12 months,” Uslar said.

“The Coastal Commission is suggesting to basically remove outdoor seating or make it dependent on a very complex and costly permitting process,” he continued. “That’s a bit premature given the current needs of our society.”

At its next regular meeting in October, the Monterey City Council is set to consider a letter to the California Coastal Commission that would address the city's goals for outdoor dining on Fisherman's Wharf, as well as suggest an way for businesses to retain their outdoor seating for another 12 months. (Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald)
At its next regular meeting in October, the Monterey City Council is set to consider a letter to the California Coastal Commission that would address the city’s goals for outdoor dining on Fisherman’s Wharf, as well as suggest a way for businesses to retain their outdoor seating for another 12 months. (Tess Kenny/Monterey Herald)

Contributed by local news sources

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