6:40 p.m. update — Erik Dorn, one of the owners of Del Ray Pizzeria, emailed Patch the following statement:
"There is no question that the owners of Del Ray Pizzeria should have been more vigilant in assuring that their restaurant operated in accordance with all of the Special Use Permit conditions imposed by the City of Alexandria as part of the administrative approval allowing DRP to open its doors in October 2010. There are no excuses. I apologize to the community and the city.
"In January 2010, DRP received a Special Use Permit to open a neighborhood restaurant with 32 seats inside and 12 outdoors seats. The number of seats approved were the maximum number of seats that could we could have been approved given the number of parking spaces that are on the DRP property. At that time, we believed that as a new venture the number of seats would accommodate the projected level of business. If successful, it had been our plan to try to find additional parking so that we could apply for additional seats. Up to 100 seats can be approved administratively if the code required parking can be satisfied; otherwise, a parking reduction special use permit is required.
"Several things happened, in November 2010, DRP was fortunate to be able to engage Eric Reid from the just-closed Del Merei Grille to manage and operate the restaurant. This represented a change of course and a management team that was not involved in the early business planning and special use permit approval. To our pleasant surprise, DRP blossomed. With this success came the challenges of operating a small business; being profitable, meeting client expectations and taking care of day-to-day affairs. It was in this process that we got ahead of ourselves. Bar stools were added where before it was for standing patrons and 10 additional high-top tables were added to accommodate demand. People were happy and the business was sustainable. Reality struck when the Zoning Inspector made his annual inspection and noted a number of SUP issues. We promptly filed an application to amend the special use permit to increase the number of seats with a parking reduction and have addressed the other violations."
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currently has double the seating allowed by its special use permit, but city staff is allowing the restaurant to retain all the seats as it applies for a revised permit.
Alexandria Deputy Director of Planning and Zoning Barbara Ross said the issue was discovered during an annual inspection of the pizzeria in December that coincided with a citizen complaint about the restaurant.
Ross said she believed the restaurant’s permit allows for 36 seats, but that the pizzeria is operating with more than 70 seats.
“We did find a series of violations, including too many seats,” Ross told City Council on Saturday at City Hall. “They immediately filed an SUP application to increase their numbers. It involves a parking reduction.”
The SUP application to expand the seating is scheduled to go before the Planning Commission in April. Also included in the application is the proposed addition of a private upstairs dining room that will be used only for special events. on the second level have been scrapped.
When asked by Mayor Bill Euille why the extra seats were not removed, Ross said staff used discretion in its enforcement priorities.
Ross said the approach was about tackling violations that were “easier to correct” and “less damaging to the success of the business.” Ross said her department had received a series of complaints from adjacent owners about a variety of violations at the restaurant, including some involving trash and deliveries. She said they’ve all been corrected and that staff received no complaints about the extra seating.
The issue was brought before council during Saturday’s open hearing period by Sarah Haut, a member of Del Ray Citizens Association Land Use Committee. Haut said an increase in seating in an area with limited parking can have a significant impact on neighbors.
“I thought the zoning ordinance and the permit process was put in place to maintain a balance between businesses and residents in a neighborhood,” Haut said. “In this case, we’re just going around that. I’m extremely disappointed in the way the city has handled this and I hope it doesn’t become the standard process.”
Haut’s remarks set off a discussion about the level of discretion city staff should use when enforcing permit violations.
Councilwoman Alicia Hughes called the extra seating a "flagrant violation of the law.”
Euille called the amount of extra seating “blatant.”
City Manager Rashad Young said discretion in this situation isn’t much different than a police officer deciding whether to issue a traffic ticket. He said the restaurant’s work to correct other violations represented “a good faith effort on behalf of the business to come into compliance, so then we felt comfortable exercising the discretion to get into compliance with the SUP.”
Young said council should have a conversation at a later date if it wants to develop rules about flexibility and discretion when enforcing permits.
“I think discretion is really important in this case,” Councilman Rob Krupicka said. “I don’t condone massive changes to people’s SUPs without oversight, and I think we have to talk about how we can have better oversight in a situation like this. But I also know that if staff would have taken a hard line in December and said 'You have to come into compliance,' this business would have had to shut down.”
Krupicka said if the decision is to take a hard line on violations, the city will be shutting down restaurants every week.
Councilman Paul Smedberg and Euille both said that no one wants to put a restaurant out of business.
“I would like to know when they actually put those seats in there,” Smedberg said. “We’ll have to take their word on it. Regardless of the circumstance, they took a chance.”
Sean Snyder, general manager of Del Ray Pizzeria, told Patch on Monday that the extra seats were the product of a "communication error" that occurred when an ownership change occurred just two weeks after the business opened. New ownership added the seats believing that there was no violation as long as they stayed within the fire code.