MENDOCINO Co., 9/13/23 — Back in May of this year, restaurants were told the pandemic was ending, and that the special permits issued by the county to allow outdoor and tent seating during the pandemic would be going away. On Tuesday, during a board meeting held in Mendocino, county supervisors voted to grant a one-year reprieve to axing tents and outdoor seating. But as the meeting went on, it became clear that the year would be used to create a policy for code enforcement that also includes what is likely to be the county’s scarcest commodity — water.
The threat to dismantle outdoor dining spaces created during the pandemic fostered a “tent revolution” on bulletin boards and cafes in Mendocino and on the MCN LIstserv, with support from Meredith Smith, owner of Flow and Mendocino Cafe, Teddy Winslow, and numerous local restaurant owners. There are only four permitted outdoor seating tents in Mendocino, but many restaurant tents throughout the county, some permitted, likely many not. The tents allowed restaurants to stay open while the pandemic blocked all but takeout, but they now allow those same restaurants to increase the number of people they can serve on a given night. That supposition provoked the debate on Tuesday: are restaurants using too much water and draining nearby residences dry?
County zoning is divided into three regions, the town of Mendocino, the Coastal Zone as defined by the California Coastal Commission and the rest of the county. Tuesday’s actions apply to the Coastal Zone and the town, although the inland unincorporated areas will essentially be in the same position, said Julia Krog, county planning and building director, in an interview the day after the meeting.
An overwhelming majority of Mendocino residents who packed St. Anthony’s Parish Hall for the meeting raised their hands when asked by the board to signal support for the tents. At the start of the meeting, the supervisors followed suit, raising their hands to support keeping the tents for a full year with only minimal code enforcement. Part of the permitting conundrum was that three agencies were involved: the tents had run into trouble with the Mendocino Historical Review Board, a unique body that exists to maintain the historic character of the town. And the Mendocino Community Services District (MCSD) directors were puzzled as to how to proceed.
The supervisors stepped in to clarify that a one-year extension of permits would be put in place. Many of the restaurant tents up and down the coast, from Gualala to Noyo Harbor, never got permits although some did. The county is complaint-driven and isn’t out seeking those without permits, Krog explained during the interview. But she also said restaurants in the Coastal Zone should apply for the permits so that each applicant can get help in advance working out issues before the year is up. In lieu of tents, the county plan was to require businesses to create more substantial (thus expensive) outdoor seating. With the year-grace period, businesses now have time to study and plan for al fresco dining.
Tents may stay, but will there be enough water?
Tents received a reprieve from the supervisors, but the county and its restaurants received a reprieve from a winter of above-average rainfall. What will happen if — and when — the drought years continue? Will there be enough water for restaurants to survive?
District 5 Supervisor Ted Williams said forcing businesses to go through a permitting process to transition to permanent outdoor dining could create even bigger problems for the eateries. “If we continue down the current path, we’re essentially asking businesses that did everything they could to keep people employed during the pandemic and have staffed up, we’re asking them to take down what they have, go through a process, potentially spend a lot of money and ultimately, they may find that they can’t operate due to water concerns.”
Williams said over 60 properties are out of compliance and may not have a well regularly delivering potable water. “A domestic water supply permit requires both quantity and quality,” Williams said. “The water has to be coming out of a well as drinking water meeting the state standards. The commercial applicant also needs to demonstrate that there’s adequate water for normal operations of their business. During drought times they can truck water but when there’s not a declared emergency they need to be able to operate with the water that’s available on the property. They can’t be dependent on regular water hauling.”
He said he hopes that during the one-year pause it can be determined how much outdoor dining the village’s water supply can accommodate. The tents, which had replaced indoor dining, now give these restaurants the ability to serve more people indoors and in the outside dining area.
Williams hopes the year can be used to construct a policy that puts water first. If any expansion or new development is granted the first determination should be water availability. All agreed that a new water system is needed.
“We have a system that kind of works. It was designed in the 1870s. It’s probably time for us to upgrade,” said 1st district supervisor Glenn McGourty. “Given the nature of climate uncertainty that we went through during the drought, we really need to upgrade. My recommendation is every community has at least a two-year supply of water. Many of the coastal communities are water-insecure, and we’re looking at new technologies, but it’s going to take a sizable investment, and I know in the past, it’s been viewed sometimes as a way to control growth. You have to think of it differently now. It’s a way to sustain your community.”
Williams said the delay is not just kicking the issue down the road for a year. “The county needs to re-envision this policy so that the order of operations puts water first. During the year we would have county planning and building, the state division of drinking water, Mendocino Historic Review Board, potentially California Coastal Commission and the Mendocino City Community Services District working together on a policy that forms a cohesive document where applicants know from Day One everything that they have to comply with.” Williams believes the tent debate is the start of a process of decision-making. “It’s better policy if we tackle the real issue,” he said. “It may be that part of what comes out of this process is more coordination with State Sen. MIke McGuire on finding a community water system. I don’t think most people are against outdoor dining. I think there’s legitimate concern that this town doesn’t have a water system today and desperately needs one.”
Critics have opposed the tents because they don’t fit with the historical character of Mendocino. Resident Bill Zimmer told the board there was no way the tents could ever fit with the historic character of Mendocino, and that outdoor dining draws down wells and uses water needed for firefighting. “We are in a very difficult place,” ZImmer said. “Nobody wants to see people get unemployed. Nobody wants to see this town burn. It’s clear to me that tents could never be brought into conformity with [historic review board] standards.”
Zimmer also addressed the water issue. “It’s also clear that more water is consumed because of more meals being served. This diminishes the water table across the entire town. People’s wells will run dry to purchase water. So we’re holding the bag at the same time. Restaurateurs are profiting from our holding the bag,” Zimmer charged. (He believes restaurants are overusing water)
Zimmer said Mendocino was ripe for a Maui-type devastating fire. “We live, work and sleep in tinder-dry buildings surrounded by massive amounts of tinder-dry fuel, which the state parks can’t cut until nesting birds are finished with their business at the end of August,” he said.
Meredith Smith, owner of Mendocino Cafe and Flow restaurants said she was pleased to comment after Zimmer, who has been writing letters on social media that Smith wished she could rebut. “I’m aghast at your characterization of restaurant owners carrying bags of money too big for taxpayer expense. Personally, I spent endless sleepless nights teetering on the edge of an abyss that seemed bottomless and insurmountable.” Smith said she saw vendors go under during the pandemic, and staff begging to come back to work. “The only reason we’re open now is because we have an outside tented area.”
Local resident Amanda Cruz said the tents have not had a big impact on water use but have kept the local economy going. She said some have missed the point of how restaurants are working to conserve water and finding new ways to improve environmental impacts.
“I want to honor everybody in this town who was working overboard against tremendous odds and a lot of bureaucratic hoops and a lot of high expenses to keep things going in a good way,” Cruz said. “People are employed, and Mendocino is a destination town. We have fire issues. We have water issues. I’m hoping everybody can work together and actually listen to each other on those because I have watched ghost towns happen. I’ve been there. I’ve seen them. Thousands of visitors are not going to come all the way to Mendocino. This is not Carmel despite what people say. It’s a long way to come. Most people get carsick on that road. They are not going to come If there is not good food.”
Tony Graham, owner of Patterson’s Pub in Mendocino, said the tents had kept the town alive by offering dining that was essential for continued tourism. “Why does the family from Fresno, where it’s over 100 degrees, want to drive 300 miles to Mendocino if they have no place to have dinner when they get here?”
Graham said he’s not overusing water. “I was allocated a daily allotment of 1500 gallons a day. And that was back in the 1990s. Since then, I’ve been using roughly 800 gallons per day, roughly one half of my allotment. That number did not really change dramatically once the tents went up. It went up by maybe 100 gallons per day. I read the water meter every morning. And those numbers are available to the MCSD and to the county planning and building department,” said Graham.
Others noted that both the Mendocino Hotel and Hill House have been closed during remodeling, decreasing water use there, even if it might be increasing with the tents. Other restaurants closed during the pandemic, and some, like Moody’s Coffee, never reopened.
Ellen Buechner of Caspar was one of three speakers who said health worries made her not want to eat inside anymore. In a packed room full of people, many of whom expressed worries about the pandemic not being over, very few were masked. “We all took a huge hit financially from Covid which many of us have not yet recovered from,” she said, “I just want to remind all of us that the little decisions we make now are going to have a huge effect as we go forward. This is not the end of this pandemic, and this is by no means the last pandemic. Small towns such as this one still have the ability for eye contact, empathy, and personal relationships. I beg all of us in this room, but especially the board of supervisors, to see and hear that bigger picture. Small towns have to pave the way for the huge corporations and the huge urban centers where people cannot see each other and they can’t listen to each other. They are attached to their pet entitlements while the planet burns. We should be a shining star of hope and resilience and a model. That sounds overdramatic, but I know that a lot of people in this room understand exactly what I’m saying. So let’s continue speaking to each other with respect and kindness and keep our eye on that macro moment.”