Two gay members of the Rehoboth Beach Board of Commissioners are supporting a proposal to ease a little-noticed outdoor patio ordinance that led to the Sept. 11 arrest of a gay bar owner for keeping his outdoor seating area open after 11 p.m.
The “citation” arrest of Aqua Grill co-owner Bill Shields and the owners or managers of two straight restaurants on the same night on a criminal charge of violating the Rehoboth Beach patio ordinance has prompted critics to call the police action an embarrassment to the town. Some are calling the incident “patio-gate.”
Rehoboth Police Chief Keith Banks disputed media reports that police raided 12 restaurants or bars on the night of the three arrests in connection with the patio ordinance. He said the establishments were “visited” by officers after town inspectors informed them days earlier that the town would begin enforcing an ordinance that had largely gone unenforced for a decade or longer.
The ordinance requires restaurants or bars to stop serving food or drinks on their patio at 10 p.m. and to vacate the patio by 11 p.m.
The charge against Shields and the owner of one of the other two establishments was dropped days later. Banks said police discovered that Aqua’s operating permit included a possible waiver of the ordinance’s requirement that restaurant or bar patios be vacated by 11 p.m. He said police dropped the charge against the owner of one of the other establishments cited after learning it was exempt from the ordinance under a grandfather clause for places in business prior to 1991.
Rehoboth officials said they began enforcing the ordinance after receiving complaints by residents about noise coming from people sitting or standing in the patios.
Gay Rehoboth Commissioners Dennis Barbour and Pat Coluzzi have joined other commissioners in calling for reclassifying the ordinance into a civil rather than criminal statute.
At a Nov. 8 workshop meeting held by the commission, Barbour called for eliminating the grandfather clause and shifting enforcement to establishments found to be causing excessive noise rather than linking it to patios themselves. The commission, which serves as the town’s legislative body, took no action at the meeting. Barbour said he would continue to push for a change in the ordinance.
Banks said the three people arrested in September were given a citation during the police visit and were not taken into custody or detained. However, he said an officer finger printed them with a portable, hand-held ink pad. The remaining person arrested in the incident pleaded guilty and paid a fine.
Gay activist and Rehoboth resident Peter Schott said most of the establishments named by authorities as past violators of the patio or a separate noise ordinance are patronized by gays or lesbians, even though most are not considered gay establishments. The Blue Moon, a popular gay bar and restaurant in Rehoboth, is among the establishments exempt from the patio law through its grandfather clause.
Steve Elkins, president of Camp Rehoboth, an LGBT organization, said he did not believe police or Rehoboth officials were targeting the establishments because of the perceived sexual orientation of their customers.