The City of Santa Barbara has filed a criminal misdemeanor complaint against the owner and the general manager of the Chase restaurant for allegedly violating the city’s emergency outdoor dining order. The Chase, located on the 1100 block of State Street, faces 11 misdemeanor counts, with the city alleging the restaurant has continued to encroach on the sidewalks with customer seating, tables, heaters, and lighting.
In June of this year, the Santa Barbara City Council voted to clear the sidewalks of any kind of outdoor dining that was not permitted before the COVID-19 pandemic. The council’s decision was made with the intent of creating safer walkways for pedestrians and people with disabilities. Businesses would be allowed to apply for an outdoor dining permit, but would only be approved following an inspection of the property, and assurance that the ADA required eight feet of sidewalk was accessible.
Warren Butler, general manager of the Chase, is named in the case as well as owner Jackie Mathis. Butler told the Independent that he believes the council made this decision with all good intentions, but did not consider how this would impact businesses that have struggled to regain customers since the pandemic. “We’re still going through COVID, so we wanted to make a safe environment that is still entertaining for guests,” Butler said.
The Chase began receiving complaints from Santa Barbara Public Works department on July 15, and subsequently received 10 complaints and two citations for allowing its outdoor dining to encroach on the sidewalk without an outdoor dining license agreement. Each violation came with a fine of about $250, adding up to about $2,050 in fines. Butler said he has attempted to apply for the outdoor dining license agreement, but was told his application was incomplete and would not be approved. “We were listening and adhering to what they were saying,” Butler said of city officials. “And then they switched gears on us.”
The Chase has not complied with the order or responded to the complaints, Butler said, largely due to his belief that the council will “come around” to rescinding its earlier decision and that the governor and State of California are on his side. Butler often cites a June 3 letter from Governor Gavin Newsom calling on local leaders to, among other things, “exercise discretion in working with restaurant owners who may be operating in spaces that are not consistent with local zoning ordinances.”
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Butler went on that the Chase is also setting the tone for other restaurants that do not have the ability to speak against the city’s decision. “There’s other restaurants that are afraid,” Butler said. “I’m speaking up for the little guys that are afraid to say anything; who need those few little tables to get by.”
Many business owners can recall when the COVID-19 pandemic began last year, and downtown Santa Barbara became a ghost town, with most storefronts closed and businesses left wondering how long they would survive without customers. However, since the closure of several blocks of State Street to vehicles and the creation of a makeshift promenade, downtown Santa Barbara has once again become the bustling heart of the city, alive with tourists and residents alike.
After Governor Newsom made an order to allow outdoor dining, restaurants immediately jumped at the opportunity to serve again, some building more elaborate setups on the streets and sidewalks, spending thousands of dollars to create an elevated outdoor dining experience.
The indoor dining area of the Chase is limited, Butler said, and the addition of outdoor dining allows for more customers, and more space for staff to remain a safe distance from one another without squeezing customers into a cramped dining room. He believes the Chase has at least eight feet of sidewalk space and that there hasn’t been an issue with anyone trying to walk through it. “Anyone can come down and see that we’re handicap friendly,” Butler said.
Assistant City Prosecutor Denny Wei would not speak to any specifics outside of the filed complaints but did say the issue of encroaching on sidewalks is simply an issue of accessibility for those who need the space to move freely. Wei also said that since the city made the decision in June, including the complaint against the Chase, there have only been two formal complaints of restaurants violating the emergency order.
Around City Hall, the case is well known. It is, after all, a criminal prosecution of a downtown businessperson in the time of COVID. Privately, some councilmembers cringe at the optics of going after Butler and the Chase. But there’s also a definite perception that Butler pushed the envelope when it came to encroaching on the sidewalk and that he resisted numerous entreaties to comply with the eight-foot channel required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. If there are no consequences, they questioned, how can they push other businesses to comply? Now that the lawsuit has been filed, however, councilmembers are effectively barred from speaking with Butler directly or commenting on the case.
In California, the standard consequence for a misdemeanor is a fine of $1,000 or up to six months in jail. The arraignment for the case was Thursday, and a readiness and settlement conference is expected to take place on November 15.
Though it is not clear yet what will come of this case, Butler said that the state is on his side and he will not be complying unless he is forced to. “I want to be part of the solution; I want to be part of the community,” Butler said “We believe, in the end, they’ll come around.”