An amendment to allow cafes on an Old Town Bluffton ladder street moved a step forward Wednesday evening, despite discussion from nearby residents about what cafes could mean for the historic district’s future.
The town’s Planning Commission voted 5-0 to approve, with conditions, cafes on Lawton Street, provided the businesses do not provide alcohol or outdoor entertainment. Chairman Josh Tiller recused himself from the vote and Commissioner Sean Congleton abstained from voting. Commissioner Terry Hannock was not present.
The proposal was brought to the board by William Tapp and Chris Johnston — two of the owners of retail store Mameem and Maudie, at 7 Lawton Street — to allow cafe uses in certain districts, including Lawton and Lawrence streets. The zoning currently does not allow food to be prepared and served onsite in the Neighborhood Center District, where Mameem and Maudie is located.
“When you look at (our) business model and pieces of revenue, (the cafe) is critical for us,” Johnston said. He added the owners of Mameem and Maudie always intended to add a food-service element to the business.
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Johnston requested the commission approve a text amendment to allow cafe uses in the Neighborhood Center District, which includes Lawton and Lawrence streets. A town report said the proposed definition of a cafe would be “an establishment where food and beverages are prepared, served and consumed primarily within the principal building, provided alcoholic beverages are not possessed, distributed, consumed or sold.”
In the report, town staff recommended the Planning Commission approve the amendment, citing more mixed uses in Bluffton as “adequate for future growth.”
Mameem and Maudie opened as a retailer in July. Originally, Johnston said, the business was intended for a parcel on Calhoun Street.
But when the deal fell through, the property at 7 Lawton St., was purchased instead in March.
In early 2015, the Planning Commission discussed and voted on a text amendment for approving restaurants in certain Old Town Bluffton districts. The amendment went before Town Council last May and passed, to allow conditionally-permitted restaurants on S.C. 46, Bruin Road, Burnt Church Road and Calhoun Street.
The amendment also outlined conditions for selling, serving and consuming alcohol at restaurants.
The unified-development ordinance states that limited food service is allowed on ladder streets, including Lawrence and Lawton streets, but restaurants — businesses with food prepared on site and that may serve alcohol — are not permitted.
“After I had bought the house — and we were doing our construction and planning — all of a sudden, this issue comes up,” Johnston said.
He expressed frustration in the meeting because his parcel was not “grandfathered in” to the pre-amendment zoning because the property was purchased before the amendment passed in May.
But project manager Kendra Lelie said an application had not been submitted prior to the council vote, which meant the business was required to follow the new ordinance.
A handful of Old Town residents spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, expressing concerns about a possible “slippery slope” of allowing cafes on ladder streets.
Jacob Preston, a resident and business owner on nearby Church Street, said the Mameem and Maudie team have been “good neighbors,” but added future tenants and planning commissions could have a different definition of what is allowable under the cafe definition.
“When there are other personalities involved, when other things are considered complementary and other demographics are introduced here — then it might be a mistake,” Preston said.
His wife, Susan Saxon, echoed his sentiments, emphasizing that the area is zoned for mixed uses and allowing cafes could run the risk of the district becoming a “business area” instead.
“We’re the poster kids for living and working somewhere,” she said. “But this is our only historic district. We need to maintain our balance. We need to maintain our quality of life.”
The proposed text amendment heads to Town Council next, with the first reading scheduled for March 8 and a public hearing set for April 12.