With reopening looming, Franklin County towns with high-traffic shopping areas talk outdoor business

  • Joy Sullivan of Enjoy on Deerfield Street in Shelburne has put some of her merchandise on her entryway just outside her store. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Enjoy on Deerfield Street in Shelburne has put some merchandise outside the store. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 6/4/2020 1:55:09 PM

With Gov. Charlie Baker expected to announce a Phase 2 reopening date on Saturday, local restaurateurs and retailers are working to reorient their business models to work outside. Still, not all towns in Franklin County are quite ready to allow them.

Of the towns in Franklin County with high-traffic shopping areas — Greenfield, Montague, Orange, Shelburne and Buckland — only Montague has confirmed that it is now fully ready to allow its local businesses to work outdoors when the state moves to its next reopening phase, which could be as soon as June 8. Restaurants will be allowed to offer outdoor seating at the start of Phase 2, and indoor seating later in the phase.

Similarly, Enjoy, a boutique in Shelburne, started working outdoors last week. Owner Joy Sullivan said she has not sought any sort of approval from the town, but that she has followed the state’s guidelines on outdoor businesses, which went into effect on Memorial Day.

“We’re finding, in Shelburne Falls, we’re not getting the traffic that we would have starting Memorial Day weekend,” Sullivan said. “I think we don’t have the traffic because people don’t know what to expect. It’s ambiguous with what’s open and what’s not.”

Shelburne Town Administrator Terry Narkewicz could not be reached for comment on the town’s policies.

For municipal planners, outdoor businesses pose potential issues regarding zoning regulations, insurance liabilities, public health and accessibility code compliance.

Different towns take different strategies in dealing with these issues. Some have said that they will work with businesses on largely a case-by-case basis, while others have said that they would favor a single blanket policy to cover all businesses.

Montague on Monday approved a licensing program through which the Selectboard can allow a business to expand into public spaces like sidewalks and parking lots.

The Montague Selectboard’s discussions were prompted two weeks ago by a proposal from owners of The Rendezvous restaurant, who were eager to start working outdoors as soon as possible.

The town Planning and Conservation Department surveyed local business owners to learn about their plans and preferences for reopening, expecting that the results of the survey would inform the development of a town policy.

However, the survey did not receive many responses. Town Planner Walter Ramsey guessed that most businesses were unsure of their plans, considering the uncertainty of how quickly the state’s reopening plan might progress.

Rather than wait longer, the Planning and Conservation Department developed a licensing application that is basically an expedited and expanded version of the existing processes for allowing outdoor cafes, Ramsey said.

Other towns are following similar tracks of surveying business owners, but are not moving as quickly.

Greenfield has not announced a strategy, but the city’s Community and Economic Development Director MJ Adams said that the issue has been discussed among officials in the Mayor’s Office.

Adams said the main focus for now is outdoor dining, and that she has had preliminary conversations with restaurant owners in Greenfield.

“It doesn’t make sense for the city to plunge ahead without consulting with the people who it would impact the most,” she explained.

The result, Adams said, will probably be some sort of licensing program regarding the use of public spaces, but there is no clear expectation of when the program will be available.

Orange is also considering policies for outdoor seating, but discussions are in the very early stages, said Community Development Director Alec Wade. He said the policy might take the form of a temporary override of normal zoning rules, either town-wide or in specifically targeted areas.

“We want to get this in place in time for businesses to reopen, but ultimately we want to do this right,” he said.

Buckland expects to work with businesses on a case-by-case basis, but has not had any inquiries yet, said Town Administrator Heather Butler.

Proposals would be treated no differently than a sidewalk permit or road closure, she said, and would probably be granted quickly.

“There isn’t anything that we aren’t willing to look at,” she said. “We’re missing our tourist economy.”

Reach Max Marcus at mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-930-4231.

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