No parklets likely this year in Montpelier
MONTPELIER — After a Vermont Liquor Control Board hearing that raised numerous concerns about plans to serve alcohol at three proposed downtown “parklets,” Montpelier Alive Executive Director Phayvanh Luekhamhan said she expects the program may be delayed until next spring.
With the earliest possible application hearing before the liquor board scheduled for Sept. 11, Luekhamhan said it was doubtful any would be in place this year. The parklets — temporary platforms installed in six parking spaces — would have created additional seating for bars or restaurants.
“Considering what the timeline is, even if the permits are applied for and approved it won’t give any businesses the time to get them in place for this year,” she said.
Luekhamhan, who did not attend Monday’s meeting, said she welcomed the state’s involvement in the process as it will pave the way for other communities that may consider the parklet idea.
By the conclusion of the brief Monday morning meeting, the liquor board made it clear that before it signs off on alcoholic beverages at the parklets, it wants a lot more information including traffic counts and input from the Vermont Agency of Transportation and the attorney general’s office. In addition, each business hoping to serve alcohol must apply for a permit from the board, which will hold a public hearing on the applications before any permits are issued.
“This is fraught with issues,” said Bill Goggins, director of licensing, education and enforcement for the Liquor Control Department.
“You have people drinking too much and tumbling over the barrier into the street. Or you have an inattentive driver on their cellphone who hits one of these. Or people handing off drinks to people driving by. The liability issues are going to be huge.”
In the absence of anyone at the hearing from Montpelier Alive, which is overseeing the parklet program, City Manager William Fraser was left to try to explain the idea behind parklets as well as why the city was pursuing the program.
After explaining the parklet concept of using parking spaces to create green space or additional seating in urban areas, Fraser told the board that when the council gave the go-ahead to Montpelier Alive to pursue the idea it was without any knowledge of what kind of businesses might apply and how they might use the space.
All six of the applications for parklets received by Montpelier Alive were from restaurants and bars. The three establishments chosen for the anticipated two-year pilot program were Asiana House, Positive Pie and Charlie-O’s.
“The council thought it was a neat idea,” Fraser told the board. “And their level of interest is borne out in the fact that they are willing to give up six parking spaces downtown to see it happen.”
Liquor board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Brien questioned why there was a need to place the parklets on busy downtown streets and whether the plan had received widespread public airing.
“What is the real reason behind this?” O’Brien asked. “Is there a lack of space? Is there a reason they can’t use the side or the rear of a building?”
Fraser assured the board that the parklet idea had been brought before the council and publicly warned, and said there had been city residents at the meetings but that they gave little input at the time.
“There was a meeting earlier where there was a slide show explaining the parklets, and then there was another meeting,” said Fraser. “But it’s my recollection that there wasn’t a lot said by the public.”
Fraser also said the concept of parklets on the main streets downtown was being embraced by the city as a way to create vibrancy in an area where several restaurants already have permits to serve alcohol at sidewalk seating.
O’Brien also questioned whether the use of the streets fell under the jurisdiction of the Vermont Transportation Agency or the city.
“It’s complicated,” said Fraser. “They’re city roads but with state input. Main Street is actually Route 12, and (part of) State Street is Route 2.”
“I have a lot of unanswered questions here,” said O’Brien. “Is it a public right of way now being used as a public space, or is it truly a public space? We need to have an understanding of where VTrans sits on this before we could consider such a request.”
Liquor Control Commissioner Michael Hogan reinforced O’Brien’s concerns, saying the board needed a lot more information. “I am not a lawyer, but to me there are some big liability questions here. I am sure the attorney general’s office is going to want to weigh in on this,” he said. “Who is going to be responsible for any unintended consequences? The city? The licensee? That could be pretty messy.”
Ann Gilbert, a member of the New Directions Coalition, a central Vermont organization promoting healthy lifestyles, said she too was concerned about allowing alcohol to be served at the parklets.
“I heard some teenagers talking about how excited they were about the parklets and having a place to sit downtown,” she said. “And now with alcohol that’s completely changed the flavor of that. It’s just extended space for a bar and restaurants. Our organization is part of Montpelier Alive, and we support downtown vibrancy. If this had been a movie theater putting in a parklet, that would be more community space.”
Fraser assured the board that he would relay its concerns to the City Council.
Luekhamhan said she would talk to the owners of the businesses accepted into the two-year pilot program and encourage them to file their applications in order to be included in the Sept. 11 hearing.
“We definitely didn’t anticipate this,” she said. “But it’s not a loss. We’ll meet with our applicants and tell them what’s going on and touch base with everyone on our committee. The initial program will be delayed, but we can take the time to figure it out and be ready for spring.”
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