Erin Shea got what she wanted, but it was infuriatingly a week too late.
All she was asking for was to keep her 19 sheds up through the end of July. They’d populated Bolete’s parking lot in Salisbury Township since December of 2020 and had received rave reviews from regular diners for their COVID-19 safety and intimate setting. But Shea, a co-owner of the James Beard Award-nominated Bolete, was told they needed to be gone by July 19 — bad news for the customers who had reservations in the last two weeks of the month. Bolete had to cancel all of them.
On Monday, the day the sheds were supposed to be gone and two days after Bolete’s last night of operation for the month, Shea received a phone call from Kerry Rabold, the Salisbury Township planning & zoning officer. Apparently, the township had made a mistake.
The still-ongoing debacle requires some background. In August of 2020, Salisbury Township passed an amendment to a zoning ordinance due to the toll COVID-19 was taking on local restaurants. The amendment would allow for restaurants to bypass some formalities in order to streamline the process of setting up temporary structures. For Bolete, this was their “shed village,” as it’s been called: 19 sheds constructed off-site and moved onto the restaurant’s parking lot and across Seidersville Road onto the property of Crossroads Baptist Church (”They have been amazing through this whole thing, letting us do that,” Shea said of the church. “We’ve been friends and neighbors for quite some time.”).
But, as Rabold said in a phone call on Thursday, “everything needs a termination date.” The language of the amendment indicated that the structures must be removed 30 days after the lifting of the emergency declaration. Pennsylvania lifted its emergency declaration on June 15, at which point Rabold started the 30-day ticking clock.
But that’s where she was wrong. The state’s declaration ending didn’t dictate what other counties, cities and towns did. Salisbury Township, as it would turn out, didn’t lift their emergency declaration until July 8, giving Shea and Bolete until Aug. 9 to comply.
“I’ll take the blame for it,” Rabold said. “I thought the township’s emergency declaration lifted with the state’s. I amended the letter and said ‘OK, you have 30 days from July 8.’ I didn’t realize we had to formally lift it as well. I made a mistake and I corrected it.”
Though even with the correction that granted Shea the two extra weeks of July she had asked for, it was too little, too late for Bolete, which canceled two weeks of reservations and switched to curbside pick-up because of the prior information Shea had received.
So what now? Bolete does have until Aug. 9 to remove the sheds, and Shea and her husband and co-owner Lee Chizmar had already planned to close Bolete for August for a multitude of reasons — preparing the interior for their return to indoor dining as well as reaching the finish line on opening a second location for their other restaurant, Mr. Lee’s Noodles, with an attached bottle store. But the shed situation is not exactly resolved — in fact, far from it.
“We have a zoning application in for both sides (of Seidersville Road),” Shea said. “The church side is just to buy me some time to get them off (Crossroads’ property) — we’ve had tons of people who want to buy them.” But the 10 sheds on Bolete’s property, in an ideal situation for the restaurant, would stay.
“I’m very nervous about getting rid of them,” she said, “and then in three months, being shut down again or not having my staff feel safe inside at work.”
Her concerns are very real: Pennsylvania has had an increase of more than 1,500 cases in the last three days combined. The state is averaging 438 new cases per day over the last seven days, when two weeks ago, that same average was at 184.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just over 51% of all Pennsylvanians are fully vaccinated, 62% when including only eligible adults. And it’s not hard to remember how dire the pandemic’s effect got in the winter. Shea has family members who are high-risk and has been acutely aware of and cautious of the risks of COVID-19 since even slightly before Pennsylvania shut down back in March 2020.
Setting up the sheds not only took an immense amount of formal petitioning and paperwork, but also plenty of physical work in setting them up. What resulted was an ingenious way for customers to have some semblance of a normal dining experience, Bolete’s staff to feel safe and the restaurant’s business to stay afloat.
In order to keep them, the restaurant would have to win an appeal with the township’s zoning hearing board. Shea was told that that application would be denied, which would allow her to file an appeal. Rabold, who isn’t on the zoning hearing board, said the restaurant would have to be granted a variance by the board due to hardship.
According to section 27-112.5 of the town’s zoning ordinance, a variance is granted for unusual physical circumstances or conditions. But there’s also a section noting the board’s ability to grant special exceptions. However, according to Rabold, “(the members of the zoning hearing board) typically don’t make decisions based on temporary things.”
If Bolete isn’t successful in keeping the sheds on their property, Shea has heard from some supporters that are willing to hold onto the sheds in the unfortunate event that they’re needed again. “We’re so lucky in that way,” Shea said. “More than five people have said ‘I have all this property, you can put some at my farm.’”
While only a few people can physically take the sheds, Bolete has received much encouragement via social media. When Shea posted about the whole debacle, the comments were flooded with diners asking what they could do to help, calling the situation “bureaucratic nonsense” and spouting anecdotes about how lovely dining in the sheds was.
It remains to be seen whether that public support will aid Bolete’s case with Salisbury Township. “Rules are in place for reasons,” Rabold said. “I can’t make exceptions, I can’t. As much as I’d love to say, ‘yep, I understand, I’d love to do this,’ I have to follow the rules.”
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Connor Lagore may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.