City tests mettle of metal 'container restaurant' ordinance
Rockland — From Montreal and Brooklyn, N.Y., to sunny Los Angeles, “hip, happening” restaurants made of steel shipping containers — dubbed container restaurants — are popping up all over the world. In Rockland, the City Council and Comprehensive Planning Commission are taking a cautious approach, each having voted to table a related ordinance for further study.
Shipping containers are typically 20 feet in length, although they can range in size from eight to more than 50 feet, with a height typically from eight to more than nine feet. The type of container restaurant proposed for Rockland would be less than 350 square feet in total size.
“From what I know, they're a perfectly good concept,” Mayor Larry Pritchett said. “We just need to work on where and under what terms to permit them.”
Denise Ames and Tim Pezanowski, a married couple who own The Lobster Shack, a small take-out business with outdoor seating at the corner of Elm and Main streets, said they would be in favor of container restaurants dotting the downtown area. Their small, cottage-like business is about the size of a small shipping container.
“If it's good for the city's revenue, then I say bring them in,” Ames said. “The city is growing and needs a revenue stream that will keep up.”
“Competition and job growth are healthy for the city's economy,” Pezanowski said.
Entrepreneurial momentum for the idea appeared to be building – although briefly. Two business owners recently approached the city to consider placing at least one container restaurant near the Center for Maine Contemporary Arts location on Winter Street, the city has confirmed. The concept was withdrawn without an official application.
However, a resulting ordinance sponsored and originated by Rockland City Councilor Louise MacLellan-Ruf was soon initiated, first appearing as an item before the Comprehensive Planning Commission during its April 17 meeting.
As proposed, the ordinance would exempt seasonal container restaurants and food wagons in the downtown and Tillson Avenue Overlay Zone areas — that are open less than six months of the calendar year — from certain standards. Those standards include architectural/design standards, space and bulk standards, and maximum front setbacks. Businesses applying for container permits would still need Planning Board approval.
“I think what these restaurants do is open up to our residents and tourists more opportunities for what kind of restaurants they want to frequent,” MacLellan-Ruf said. “And for anyone who wants to start a new business, and I'm all for commerce, it makes sense.”
Valli Geiger, who is chairwoman of the Comprehensive Planning Commission, said she and her fellow members recommended that the City Council postpone the issue because all of the ramifications of container restaurants must first be considered.
“Maybe (container restaurants) will add some fun to the downtown area, or maybe they will be a blight,” she said. She added that concerns were expressed about “sidestepping” current regulations for stationary restaurants, which create a fairness issue, as well as a concern about complete removal of design standards.
MacLellan-Ruf said container restaurants are intended to reflect the creativity of their owners. “The ordinance would allow them their own uniqueness, so they can 'funk it up,'” she said. As for allowing them in the regulation-restrictive Tillson Avenue overlay area, MacLellan-Ruf said it makes sense because they are seasonal structures and size-limited to 350 square feet.
Pritchett agreed that something needs to be done in the overlay area, where the city's regulations are the most restrictive. The City Council recently removed the harbor parks from the overlay area, but future placement of container restaurants in the parks would be difficult because those spaces are quickly leased, he said.
The container restaurant issue was divisive enough to draw two 3-2 votes during the May 12 Rockland City Council meeting. Councilor Elizabeth Dickerson initially voted “yes” with Pritchett and Councilor Eric Hebert to postpone the proposed ordinance until a Sept. 8 public hearing, with Councilors MacLellan-Ruf and Frank Isganitis voting “no.”
Then Dickerson made a motion to reconsider container restaurants, which requires four votes to pass. “I would hate for this opportunity not to exist in the city if we could make it work,” she said.
MacLellan-Ruf and Isganitis voted with Dickerson, but Pritchett and Hebert voted no. Pritchett said later that a thorough examination of restaurant pemitting and regulating needs to be conducted, rather than using a “Band-Aid approach.”
The Comprehensive Planning Commission will take up the container restaurant issue again before the City Council's Sept. 8 public hearing, Geiger said.
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Larry Di Giovanni, a veteran journalist with more than 20 years of experience, is returning to his daily reporting roots in order to cover the city of Rockland for The Courier-Gazette. Originally from Athens, Ohio, his family includes one son, Tony.
Di Giovanni has covered news beats ranging from the city of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., to the largest tribal government in the United States — the Navajo Nation. He has also worked as a writer in the public education and higher education fields. He's an animal enthusiast and loves dogs.
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