At a special work session June 3 with the town’s planning commission, the Washington Town Council discussed at length the possibility of allowing bed and breakfasts to serve dinner to non-boarders, though no decision is expected before its regular July meeting.
The issue was initially raised at the council’s May 13 meeting by John MacPherson, who owns and operates the Foster Harris House with his wife, Diane. At that meeting, MacPherson, who recently renovated his B&B’s kitchen to allow the Foster Harris House to serve dinner to its lodgers, said he spoke to County Administrator John McCarthy on the matter.
McCarthy said that while the county zoning ordinance allows B&Bs to serve dinner to outside guests, the town’s ordinance only allows dinner to be served to overnight guests at that establishment. Changing this would require the council to either recommend the town’s planning commission issue a special-use permit or revise the town’s ordinance.
Monday, MacPherson said there would only be one time for dinner (likely 7 p.m.) and that it would only be offered three nights a week (Thursday-Saturday). MacPherson said he intended to send out an email listing a week before, informing guests exactly how many tables were available; walk-ins wouldn’t be allowed and MacPherson said he’d turn away customers after reaching the B&B’s full capacity of 10 people.
Town attorney John Bennett and McCarthy both presented potential ways to allow such a motion at the meeting. McCarthy suggested the council could amend the language in the town’s ordinance that defines B&Bs, changing the definition to “where meals are served to overnight guests or other patrons, but in no greater number than the permitted number of overnight guests.”
Bennett suggested the council retain the current definition of a B&B and allow owners to apply for a special-use permit before being permitted to serve non-boarders. This approach, Bennett said, would allow the council flexibility, as each permit would be considered on a case-by-case basis.
In either case, a B&B would only be allowed to serve a number of guests equal to its maximum occupancy. For example, if a B&B had a capacity of 10 people permitted to lodge and six of them chose to eat on the premises, only four non-boarders people would be allowed to eat.
Vice-mayor Gary Schwartz agreed more with the idea of a special-use permit, but cautioned the council to remember that this change to the ordinance might have “unintended and unforeseen consequences to the character of the neighborhood . . . not every [applicant] may be up to the same caliber [as MacPherson].”
“This is not something done in isolation,” agreed council member and Inn at Little Washington proprietor Patrick O’Connell (whose establishment has long been classified as a hotel, which can serve meals to anyone). “I have a restaurant, but I don’t know that I’d want to live next to one.”
O’Connell also said that enforcing the maximum number of guests a B&B would be allowed to serve would be “a tricky wicket. Most people here want to do something of a wonderful nature . . . In isolation, this is a wonderful addition . . . [but] it’s in our best interest to consider the worst-case scenario.”
Planning commission member Bradley Schneider wondered whether a minimum number of guests should have to be present before a B&B could serve to non-boarders. “If there are no guests dining with you, it’s no longer a B&B . . . Isn’t an empty house the same as a restaurant?”
Schneider also wondered about the added workload approving special-use permits would necessitate. “Food is valuable when promoting tourism and I’d like to see that encouraged . . . [but] we’re a small body of people with limited resources . . . an SUP [special use permit] is burdensome.”
Planning commission member Nevill Turner said he was “all for an SUP,” pointing out that the Virginia Department of Health had very strict (and potentially expensive) standards for B&B kitchens that serve meals to others. “I think very few B&Bs will be able to afford to do that.”
Mayor John Fox Sullivan voiced his unequivocal support for the amendment, siding with Bennett’s proposal but encouraging both boards to develop a solution allowing the change. “This town has not been on a growth trajectory. If we can do something to help energize the town [economy], my instinct is to be open to it.”
Sullivan also suggested that adding more places to eat could be good for the town and said both boards were focusing too much on potential negatives. “We’re tying ourselves into knots by focusing on how many things might happen in a given day . . . not approving this could add to the perception that the town is averse to change.”
Gary Aichele, who, along with his wife, Wendy, recently purchased the Gay Street Inn from former owners Kevin Adams and Jay Brown, also voiced his support of the MacPhersons’ plan, though he added that he had no intention of serving meals other than breakfast to his guests.
“I support the mayor’s sense of things,” said Aichele. “And I endorse the idea that the town would be benefited.”
Aichele said he thought the ability to serve meals to more people could help B&B guests stay longer in the town, especially since boarders could “walk across the street” to try more food, and said he trusted the council to “balance the chances for the best-case and worst-case scenarios.”
No final decision was reached Monday, though both boards asked Bennett and McCarthy to draft potential changes to the town’s zoning provisions allowing B&Bs to serve meals to non-guests (such as definitions, limitations and standards for B&Bs), to be further discussed at the council’s July meeting.