Picante's in Chantilly/Centreville, Virginia is one of my go-to spots when I don't want to drive all the way to DC for some salsa dancing. I also teach there fairly often with David Norton of Washington Dance Institute. It is only about 20 mins from my house, has a good atmosphere, the floor is smooth, and I always see people I know but still meet new ones. Picante's happens to be located in Fairfax County where Board Supervisors are going to be voting on a new amendment that restricts dance space in restaurants and requires them to apply for a new permit.
The amendment states that many locations are "initially approved as eating establishments, but function primarily as entertainment venues catering to adult customers without appropriate controls." Apparently one or two locations throughout all of Fairfax County have had issues, have had visits from the police, and problems with nudity. I don't know what goes on at those places but I have never heard of problems with groups dancing salsa, swing, or other forms of dance. Reading further into the amendment, they say that "anything larger than a 150 square foot dance floor has resulted in the “eating establishment” functioning more similar to a recreation/dance hall use than an eating establishment." Of course I'm basing my experience on Picante's and a couple of other small places but to my knowledge they having dancing one night a week for approximately 6 hrs. This is not a restaurant's primary use - the patrons who come to eat or drink at the bar are their primary customers.
Unfortunately I wasn't aware of this issue soon enough to attend the Planning Commission meeting on February 23rd, but, David Norton and Todd "DJ Tadeo" Robbins attended and spoke on behalf of dancers (fast forward to 1:23 as the video is quite long). The members spoke at length about space on a floor. Needless to say it seems none of those on the planning committee are dancers. Their recommendation was for 3 square feet per dancer. 3 SQUARE FEET. Stand up. Look around you. Now measure out 3 square feet. It isn't much. Surely you can't dance salsa in that space let along swing or tango. As David spoke, one woman repeatedly asked him "How much space then? We need a number." Providing a number is a bit ridiculous. I understand that they have zoning issues and with those issues come a requirement for them to measure everything. It is my opinion that they are going about this wrong in coming up with just a number.
I really don't argue that much with Fairfax County wanting to make sure places are safe. In the video from the Feb 23rd Planning Commission you hear them speak about a location with 1,000 people inside and 1 working exit. I think we can all agree that situations like that are unsafe. They propose a 'Special Exception' permit. What happens then? You rely on one person to approve that permit. What if he sits on it for a year? What then? Salsa nights, as we all know, come and go. A restaurant gets excited to have one, finds they don't make much money with it, and shuts it down. If that promoter goes to a new restaurant, the special permit process starts all over again. It is another $16-30K for that permit. With the economy how it is, I don't think too many places or promoters will apply for a permit at that price which will then result in there being no dancing at small venues in Fairfax County.
I spoke with Jack Real of the Zoning Commission so that I could better understand the issue. I'm not a wiz with the zoning documents and there was a lot of questions and comments in the video that were somewhat conflicting. When I asked Mr. Real about the issue he commented that the main issue is the size. At what size does a dance floor change an 'eating establishment' to a 'dance hall'? The proposed 150 sq feet is what was proposed. He said at the next hearing the dance floor space can be increased if the board decides to do that and if it is then places will not need to get a permit for dancing. This is important information. As he spoke, he seemed genuinely interested in finding out if they could come up with a number that would work for restaurants. Currently Picante's is applying for an application but if the dance floor space is increased to 300 sq feet they would not need to continue.
I had sent my letter to the Planning Commission this morning and if I would have had the above information, I might have written it differently. You can email them directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. I encourage you to include size of dance floor in your email. 150 sq feet is not big enough. I'd like to say 400 sq feet would be a great size for restaurants (obviously some would have less) to have and it not be considered 'primary use'.
Get involved! I realize that many who are reading this may not ever dance in Fairfax County. However, just because permits like this don't exist in Arlington, Loudoun, or other counties it doesn't meant they won't in the future. Often times when supervisors hear about happenings in one county, they start to explore that for theirs. Permits like these would cause places like The Barking Dog, Clarendon Grill, Lucky Bar, and more to shut down if they existed in those areas. Dancing would then be relegated to the large clubs, have higher prices, and not be as intimate. Go and sign the petition and encourage the Board to find a different way for these restaurants to have safe, legal, and fun dancing at their establishment.
You can also attend the next hearing scheduled for March 1st. It will start at 8:15 pm and people can speak and testify. The meeting is held in the main board room at the County Government building. If you have the time, go and speak your mind.