Life on MacDowell Beach in downtown Leesburg will continue, at least for the summer, following action by the Town Council Tuesday night.
After hearing impassioned tributes to the unique offerings of MacDowell Brew Kitchen and its laid-back tropical themed outdoor dining area from a dozen speakers, the council voted to change the town’s “Public profanity and drunkenness” ordinance section to permit the establishment to serve alcoholic beverages within the sidewalk right of way along Harrison Street.
That vote is just one of several steps needed to bring the business into compliance with town zoning laws.
Over the past 18 months, MacDowell’s has grown into one of the town’s most popular meeting spots and has won top business appreciation awards from the town for two consecutive years. The creation of a sand-covered outdoor dining area is a key contributor to its popularity. But two weeks ago the town’s zoning staff discovered “MacDowell Beach” has washed over onto town-owned property and onto a lot not zoned for commercial use. The decorative boat and other structures in the outdoor space were erected without review by the Board of Architectural Review, which controls everything from the sizes of signs and decks to the placement of sheds within the Historic District.
The council’s action permits the business to continue operations for now, provided the owners enter into a formal agreement with the town on the requirements for beverage service. The permanent solution will require more steps, including rezoning the residential lot for commercial use, obtaining Certificates of Appropriateness for the structures and buying the right of way, which is considered to be surplus land by the town.
Speakers at Tuesday night’s public hearing on the ordinance change said the business has become an important part of their lives and has become a significant attraction to bring visitors downtown.
Melissa Barnes said she moved to Leesburg nine months ago and found the MacDowell’s to be the only venue where say can enjoy a meal while her young active son plays happily in the sand. “It’s not just a restaurant … it is a community,” she said. “It is definitely a gem to this town.”
It was a sentiment shared by speaker after speaker, some wearing shirts that read “Save Our Beach,” as they told the council about the venue’s unique atmosphere and the response from visitors who discovered Leesburg as a hip dining and social destination after spending time at MacDowell’s beach away from the water.
Jon Mays, of Waterford, questioned why the zoning infractions had not been detected by the town earlier, but urged the council to find solutions. “Let’s get this resolved. Let me go back and sit on my beach and drink my beer.”
Most Town Council members said they wanted to help get the violations ironed out.
Councilwoman Kelly Burk said the business “perhaps didn’t follow all the rules, but is very successful and very popular.”
Councilman Marty Martinez said it was important, even as Leesburg has grown into a large town, to still be small enough to carve out exceptions from time to time to help businesses.
Councilmen Dave Butler and Kevin Wright raised the most concerns. Both advocated a sunset provision be added the ordinance change, essentially setting a deadline for MacDowell’s to purchase the town property and come into compliance—a suggestion not endorsed by the majority.
While Wright said he did not want the town to serve as a landlord to a drinking establishment any longer than necessary, Butler warned that the council was setting a precedent that could be used by other businesses—perhaps less popular ones—to request the same permission to expand bar sales onto town properties.
“They didn’t just break a couple of rules, they broke the law,” Butler said, adding that he, too, was a fan of the Brew Kitchen. “We can’t make exceptions just because a business is popular.”
The ordinance change was approved on a 5-1-1 vote, with Wright opposed and Councilman Tom Dunn abstaining. Dunn urged the town to more quickly sell the property to the restaurant, but said he opposes the serving of alcohol on public property.
In response to a number of council questions about ways to speed up the process, Town Attorney Jeanette Irby said the next steps are creating an agreement governing the alcohol service in the right-of-way area and completing a property survey so the surplus land can be appraised. In addition to agreement on a sales price, a public hearing would be required before the town disposes of the surplus property.