Debate over outdoor Culver dining ends in temporary agreement

After much discussion, Culver's town council gave a tentative green light to Cafe Max owner Susie Mahler to install a railing on the sidewalk outside her establishment at 113 South Main Street in downtown Culver, with the intention of full-fledged outdoor dining this summer.

At the April 10 meeting, Mahler and some council and audience members emphasized the value of such an arrangement for Culver as a resort and tourist destination, citing similar arrangements in numerous other cities, though there was some debate as to whether it's normative for outdoor dining to take place in public right-of-ways such as the sidewalk.

Mahler noted since alcohol sales will be part of the outdoor options, excise laws require a three-foot high railing be installed, which in this case would be four feet from the restaurant building. Council president Sally Ricciardi pointed out work this September towards Culver's downtown revitalization will require complete removal of the entire sidewalk, to which Mahler replied she intends the railing to be removable, and plans to replace it once the revitalization project is complete. She said the architect designing the project projected enough tables and chairs for around 25 people could be fit in the sidewalk space created.

Concern was raised in the audience over sidewalk width for walkers and bicyclists, though it was pointed out bicycle riding on the sidewalk is illegal. Mahler noted sidewalks in the downtown area are 11 feet wide.

"I think we all know how limited the (tourist) season is in Culver," said Mahler. "Outdoor dining is something everybody talks about and asks us for. To legally even have a cocktail on a sidewalk you have to have a railing, so it's never been legal before, in Culver."

Town marshal Wayne Bean discussed concerns that the project could violate recent ordinances concerning consumption of alcohol in public, though council member Ginny Munroe noted state excise laws allow outdoor consumption provided customers don't leave the railing are with an open alcoholic beverage.

"We're a resort town," added Munroe. "It creates an ambiance. To me, it's part of the atmosphere of the town."

Council member Bill Githens concurred, noting addition of the outdoor dining space shouldn't become a noise nuisance if it maintains its current hours of operations.

Some audience members asked about liability issues, since the sidewalk is town-owned space. Town attorney Jim Clevenger suggested a "hold harmless" agreement be signed for the town's protection, something Mahler expressed willingness to sign.

Audience member Mike Stallings suggested the council agree to the endeavor as a three-month trial period, with council member Lynn Overmyer making a motion Mahler be allowed to install the railing through Labor Day or until the revitalization project reaches her area, something the council approved.

The railing and tables were installed Friday afternoon. Later that day, a 2 p.m. public work session was scheduled for Tuesday, April 17, by Culver's town council, to discuss the matter.