CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — After removing a quarter of its seats last month in an attempt to comply with a town ordinance, The Good Table restaurant this week may have moved a step closer to getting some of them back.
The Cape Elizabeth Planning Board on Tuesday set a public hearing for May 22 on a proposed zoning amendment that would increase the maximum number of seats allowed in a restaurant in the Business A District.
“I do feel good,” said owner Lisa Kostopoulos, who founded the Ocean House Road restaurant with her father 29 years ago. “But I also feel that perhaps [the planning board] could’ve made this a priority sooner because it’s a matter of people’s livelihoods. The summer is when we make our money to get through long winters, and I may go into July shy 25 seats, shy parking, shy employees.”
The seating saga dates back to last summer, when Code Enforcement Officer Ben McDougal received a letter from Mary Otulakowski, former owner of the neighboring Rudy’s restaurant, complaining of alleged zoning violations, including too many seats, at The Good Table.
After inspecting, McDougal asked that tables be removed from the restaurant’s porch and said he’d revisit the issue after the summer season, Kostopoulos said.
Kostopoulos responded in August by requesting from the Town Council a zoning change to Business A District, which includes about a dozen properties in the Two Lights Road area and a few more along Shore Road near the South Portland line, to increase the maximum number of restaurant seats from 80 to 100.
That request appeared to be moving slowly through the planning board process until at an April 15 planning board meeting, when Vice Chairwoman Liza Quinn announced she had visited The Good Table and counted the restaurant’s chairs — all 104 of them. As a result, some board members complained that the restaurant was openly ignoring the zoning ordinance.
“Board members expressed frustration with a violation of the existing ordinance and the potential for expanding violations,” Town Planner Maureen O’Meara wrote in a memo to the board. “The meeting concluded with the planning board removing the 100-seat amendment.”
Two weeks later, the board appeared to relent. It called a special meeting for May 6, which lasted 10 minutes, and agreed unanimously to hold the May 22 public hearing on the 100-seat amendment.
“While the planning board’s frustration with an individual enforcement action is understandable, the planning board’s responsibility and role is to take a broader, long-term view of overall appropriate activities in the Business A District,” O’Meara wrote in the memo. “Before learning of the violation, the planning board was moving in the direction that 100 seats can be appropriate.”
Following the public hearing, the Planning Board will make a recommendation on the proposed amendment, one way or another, to the Town Council. The council will likely discuss the amendment at its June 9 meeting, Town Manager Mike McGovern said, and forward it to the ordinance committee.
The council could fast-track the issue by scheduling a public hearing for its July 14 meeting.
In the meantime, The Good Table just has to wait and see what happens.
Following the April 15 meeting, Kostopoulos reduced the number of chairs inside the restaurant to 75. She has also blocked off parking spots that were deemed in violation of code; her staff now parks nearby and walks to the restaurant.
“They had a point. We were not in compliance,” Kostopoulos conceded. “They want everyone to play by the same rules, and that’s understandable. I agree.”
But Kostopoulos also is frustrated that a process that began nearly a year ago is still playing out. She said The Good Table is hiring fewer servers for fewer hours as a result of the seating reduction. She said the staff is literally shuffling chairs around the dining room during dinner. And business at Mother’s Day brunch this Sunday, which typically draws about 600 people, could be down 25 percent, she said.
For what it’s worth, she feels she has the support of the town’s residents.
“I think that’s the consensus around town: We’re good people making a living,” Kostopoulos said. “We’ve watched people have their first date here, watched them get married and have babies, and then we’ve employed their kids as dishwashers. That’s a long history. We’ve been a piece of the fabric of this community for almost 30 years.”