Olympia regulates outdoor dining to regain the mobility and use of sidewalks

Offers two permit options


After being lax during the pandemic year, Olympia Engineering Program specialist Andrew Curtis said the city is now regulating outdoor dining in downtown businesses.

Curtis spoke at the Parking and Business Improvement Area (PBIA) meeting yesterday, November 2. He discussed the city policy for the private commercial use of the public right-of-way (ROW), sidewalks and alleys for downtown outdoor dining, and the state's tax to collect starting next year.

"During the pandemic, we made a quick pivot to accommodate outdoor dining to keep the businesses going. But now we need to get back to and hopefully clarify the rules for businesses using the public right-of-way," Curtis said.

He said that while the city supports outdoor dining, they cannot lose sight of the sidewalks' purpose or use, which is mobility. They must keep it safe for pedestrians, maintain traffic sightlines, and maintain emergency exits.

"The right-of-way is a public resource that belongs to everyone, not just adjacent businesses," Curtis clarified.

"We also need to follow state laws… and collect the leasehold excise tax on behalf of the state, something the city is required to do," Curtis added.

According to Curtis, the leasehold excise tax is a state tax levy on the permanent private occupation of what is considered public space. Outdoor dining using the right-of-way is leasehold excise taxable.

Permit options

Because the state requires tax collection for any permanent private occupation of public sidewalks, Curtis said the city developed two permitting pathways.

He said the state considers permanent and is subject to tax any occupation of the right-of-way lasting 30 days and railings anchored into the sidewalks, fences, fixtures, and platform that stay in place.

For permanent fixtures, businesses need:

  • A ROW lease agreement with the city, typically a four-year term
  • Building permits for new railings/fixtures
  • Certificate of Insurance
  • Building permit cost depends on the scope
  • Fees including ROW rental fee at $2.75 per square feet/year; state leasehold excise tax set at 12.84% of the total rent

The city also offers a temporary permitting pathway or arrangement.

Outdoor dining is considered temporary as long as tables and chairs are pulled in once every 29 days. No payment of the leasehold excise tax is needed.

For businesses who opt for temporary use of right-of-way or sidewalk, Curtis listed the following requirements:

  • Apply for a sidewalk café (pedestrian interference permit) from the city, which would need to be renewed yearly. The permit is approximately $200/year.
  • The business would outline the dining area with demarcation medallions or blue dots, leaving room for pedestrian access on the sidewalk and following other safety guidelines. The medallions cost $10 each.
  • The business' liability insurance needs to cover the city right-of-way

Clean Alley Credit

Olympia is implementing a new program called "Clean Alley Credit.” The city wants businesses to adopt and take care of the alleys that do not have use for city services, such as waste pick-up, and are not needed for pedestrian mobility the same way the sidewalks.

"The city would credit them the rent they would typically pay for using the public ROW," Curtis informed the PBIA board members. "The rationale behind this credit is that it costs the city a lot of money to clean… and other city resources to maintain."

However, the city would need to collect the state leasehold excise tax for those with a permanent permit.


6 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • ShirleyM3648

    Instead of going after a non-problem, tackle the pressing issue of tents on sidewalks, scattered trash and other debris blocking wheelchair and pedestrian access.

    Thursday, November 3, 2022 Report this

  • pheong

    So, all the restauranteurs on Ensign Road will soon be contributing their share no doubt. None of the crap that accumulated on Ensign should have been tolerated for even a day. To have allowed the campers to hamper quick emergency travel by failing to address Ensign Road clogging is just another example of a neutered city government.

    Where was the City Manger as the situation on Ensign became worse and worse?

    Ah, I know, setting rules for placement of flags on 4th in addition to those on Capital for desiginated holidays. This 50's style of city management has long since served its purpose. Time for rules with teeth that are enforced, fully and fairly.

    Friday, November 4, 2022 Report this

  • GmaMaggie

    It's about time. Pedestrians deserve the dignity of not having to endanger themselves in traffic just to get past a restaurant where no one is eating.

    Now can we talk about how many businesses can't seem to understand how to keep their foliage off of the sidewalks?

    Let's all try to respect one another's ability to get around. Not everyone owns a car, and more people shouldn't.

    Friday, November 4, 2022 Report this

  • Tractor1

    It is really a shame that Olympia is unable to apply the same criteria to the effects of homeless campers who choose to set up quarters on sidewalks and use alleys as their personal sanitary (?) facilities.

    Friday, November 4, 2022 Report this

  • DalePutnam

    As per other comments, take care of the "homeless" use of the sidewalks before worrying about business use.

    Friday, November 4, 2022 Report this

  • Connie

    Dining outside is a wonderful way to revitalize the downtown! I think we need more of it, the sidewalks should be wider and perhaps make Capitol Way a one way street or reduce the parking on that street and build a parking garage. There are probably other creative ways to do this. Europe has a LOT of outdoor dining, all year round, and people love it

    Saturday, December 10, 2022 Report this