The outdoor tables at Market Space in Annapolis still were almost full Sunday afternoon as the St. Patrick’s Day weekend wound its way toward a happy, buzzy conclusion.

Green was the color of the moment, with hundreds of revelers clad in emerald hats, T-shirts and vaguely Irish personal decorations. Yet they faded against white pear blossoms and a brilliant blue sky that arched above the tables.

An osprey flew over my house Friday, the foxes are singing nightly outside my window, and the vernal equinox — that balance point of dark and light that marks the arrival of spring — is Tuesday at 11:06 p.m.

The real sign of spring in Annapolis, though, is a sudden urge to find a table outside a café, bar or bookstore, sip a lovely beverage and watch winter lose its grip. It’s a poetic moment, and because this is America, that’s good for business.

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“It’s where people want to sit, you know?” said Jeremy Black, managing owner of Federal House on Market Space. “I love that you’re going to talk about spring coming and the benefit of that, but that outdoor dining benefits me even through the colder months.”

Yet four years after the city OK’d tables in parking lots to help restaurants during COVID, these café society symbols remain a temporary thing. The city has renewed its “pilot” program so many times that some have lost count.

“Did I mention it was four years ago?” asked Alderwoman Elly Tierney, who represents downtown. “Four years!”

Multiple pieces of legislation have been introduced at City Hall, all aiming to give restaurants and residents a set of rules they can rely on to expand or deal with disputes.

There was a plan to waive all parking requirements for restaurants, pitched as a walkable-city bill that would also have cleared the way for outdoor dining. There was a proposal to charge restaurants a $12,000 annual fee for being able to have outside tables, to pay for the added use of city services.

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A consultant was hired and then largely forgotten. Some suggested creating residential parking permits in Eastport, pushing visitors into public parking on Sixth Street. Others are discussing which is better, tents or umbrellas.

“There’s a lot of moving parts to deal with,” Tierney said. “My message here is, we have to find a way to do it.”

She is circulating a draft bill that would set a fee for converting private parking to dining and spend proceeds on transit options. Businesses that use public parking would pay the city rent. The bill would require minimum parking for people with disabilities and a plan to control noise. Closing time for outdoor seating would be 10 p.m. across the city. The city manager could pull permits for any business deemed a nuisance.

Its main sponsor is Alderman Ross Arnett. He and Tierney represent the wards with a majority of the city’s outdoor dining spots, but some of his constituents in Eastport are driving opposition specific to their neighborhood.

“I have some constituents that would just as much prefer that outdoor dining go away and have made that opinion personally to me,” Arnett said. “I’m not going to support making outdoor dining go away.”

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Both have submitted and withdrawn proposals since 2020. Tierney agreed to let him prepare a new draft because of neighborhood opposition in his ward; Arnett decided that the way forward was to change focus from regulating parking to regulating restaurants.

Tierney plans to submit the bill after the annual city budget is adopted later this spring. Arnett wants to wait until she and the third co-sponsor, Alderman Rob Savidge, agree to support the bill without pushing amendments after it is introduced. He also wants to win over Alderwoman Karma O’Neill, whose West Annapolis district has its own share of sidewalk tables.

“So, a lot of it you can lay at my feet,” Arnett said.

Outdoor dining is an attraction in several parts of the city. Perhaps no business has benefited more, however, than Forward Brewing in Eastport. The tiny brewery opened just as COVID precautions were shutting down indoor dining. It found unexpected success in using most of the five spaces in its gravel parking lot as a beer garden.

“Outdoor dining became what we became known for,” said Cam Bowdren, co-owner. “People think of us as an outdoor dining room. … It’s one of those things that now that it’s happened, it almost can’t be put in the box.”

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Although his business is just one of four with outdoor tables and chairs on Fourth Street in Eastport, it gets an inordinate amount of criticism from neighbors.

“I don’t know that people are objecting to the concept of outdoor dining,” said Bill Reichardt, president of the Eastport Civic Association. “The nature of the business appears to result in a lot of people who show up, buy their beer, walk around, talk loud, some get drunk, wander off the property. The brewpub … doesn’t really have a handle on that.”

Forward Brewing produces small amounts of unique beer, and that creativity is a big draw — current offerings include a rosemary-infused red ale.

It is popular, but Eastport has plenty of pressures on its cramped streets other than restaurants that don’t get much scrutiny. People headed downtown park on the streets and walk across the Spa Creek Bridge because it’s free, and sailors who come to its many marinas know they can find a spot, too.

Bowdren wants the city to set rules that are fair for everyone and establish a level playing field across the city.

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“It’s important to note, we’ve already been doing this for four years,” Bowden said. “We know what it looks like. If we were able to make it permanent, businesses could adjust accordingly.”

Neighborhood politics are making that difficult. Arnett said one constituent told him she wants Forward Brewing gone because limited street parking makes it hard for her mother to find a spot when she visits a few times each year.

“I’m thinking you want me to close all outdoor dining for all restaurants in Ward 8 so that your mother can park in front of your house those times when she chooses to come to visit,” he said. “Can you say NIMBY?”

Tables at Market Space in Annapolis, operated by five downtown restaurants, were filled with people celebrating St. Patrick's Day on March 17, 2024.
The five restaurants that offer outdoor dining at Market Space designate their area with different styles of tables, chairs and even outdoor heaters.

You can find outdoor tables without politics corralled off the parking lot at Grump’s Cafe near Hillsmere or on the sidewalk at 49 West, just blocks from the county courthouse, or on the porch at Evelyn’s in West Annapolis. There are little tables and chairs set up in the back garden at Brown Mustache Coffee on Maryland Avenue, or Sophie’s Crepes on Prince George Street.

You can sit at a picnic table outside Bread and Butter Kitchen and admire the State House dome across Spa Creek, or get up close to it at a table on the State Circle deck at Parley Room.

Then there’s Dining Under the Stars, which turns the first block of West Street into an outdoor dining room one to two nights a week from May to September. It will have a fundraiser next month that includes a single table stretched the length of the block.

Or you could go back to Market Space. The five restaurants that lease it pay the city $15,000 a month. For Federal House, Market House, Iron Rooster, McGarvey’s Saloon and The Pearl, it pays off year-round.

Each restaurant offers tables and chairs in different colors and styles, some with flooring over the asphalt. They serve food and drinks from their menus, with servers walking out the nearby front doors. Pearl is about to reopen after a yearlong rebranding, changing its name from Harvest Wood Grill.

“It’s the heart of the city,” said Jody Danek, who operates several different food outlets inside Market House under a city lease.

Tierney understands the pressures on Arnett, and she’s willing to give him more time to sort out his constituents’ concerns. But businesses downtown and others across Annapolis don’t have the same worries, and are ready for this debate to to be over.

Four years is long enough.

“I will enjoy winning the fight with Eastport,” Tierney said.