By Mary Thurwachter
Almost four years ago, Henry Olmino, chef and owner of Mario’s Ocean Avenue restaurant, leased a parking lot from the town so the restaurant would meet Lantana’s parking requirements. His 2,500-square-foot restaurant needed 61 spaces and had only 42.
Olmino paid $12,000 to rent the Third Street parking lot, a short walk from the restaurant, but west of U.S. 1. The deal seemed a good idea for both parties, since the town had just repaved the parcel and was looking for a way to recoup some of the expense, and Mario’s needed more parking spaces.
But does Mario’s really need the 30-car lot?
“We’ve never used it,” Olmino said during the Jan. 14 Town Council meeting. “We just pay for it. We have never once parked a car in the lot.”
While the council ended up approving the lease for another year, some questioned how fair it was to make Olmino spend $12,000 annually for space he doesn’t use. Is it possible that parking on Ocean Avenue, Lantana’s downtown business district, really isn’t as much of a problem as many considered it?
Town officials are revisiting the parking code and will consider possible revisions to answer questions like that.
“The objective would be to bring [revisions] to you no later than the second meeting in March,” said Town Attorney Max Lohman. “Parking regulations were last reviewed in 2009-2010. It’s a very large, comprehensive section of our code, probably 15-20 pages, and we can’t do it piecemeal. We’re looking at working with the numbers and trying to figure out what makes sense.
“We recognize that there are issues with the parking and we’re trying to come up with some things that will be more realistic and make more sense. But we want this to be well-thought out and not half-baked.”
Chamber of Commerce President Dave Arm says it’s high time for parking revisions.
“Mario’s is a Lantana success story,” Arm said. “That place is packed summer and winter. Not too many restaurants around here have survived like that.”
He said he has never noticed a parking problem as a customer and never noticed anyone else having a parking problem at Mario’s, which provides valet parking.
“I’ve also noticed that now that we have Lyman Kayak Park around the corner, that lot is never full,” Arm said. “There is room to park in the town. Could parking be better downtown? We all know that. Could parking restrictions be a little easier? We all know that, too. I think requiring Mario’s to have this lease on this parking lot is the wrong way to go about things because he doesn’t need it.
“If you really want somebody to pay for that lot, look at some of the other restaurants also on Ocean Avenue. Maybe they should all get together and pay for that lot,” Arm suggested.
But the town’s development services director, Dave Thatcher, said Olimo had approached other restaurant owners on the street before leasing the lot and none of them was interested.
Council member Lynn Moorhouse agreed with Arm and Olmino.
“People walk down there all the time,” he said. “I do. There is not a lack of parking down there, in my opinion,” Moorhouse said.
But without the signed lease, Olmino would be in violation of the code.
To add to the restaurant’s problem, a miscommunication between Thatcher and Olmino in 2017 allowed the lease to lapse more than a year ago. That means Mario’s was in violation of code.
Thatcher said he thought the lease was no longer necessary, since the lot was not used, but later found out he was wrong. In an application, Olmino had said he would have employees park their cars in the Third Street lot. But that hasn’t been necessary.
Had the council not approved the lease in January, Olmino would have needed to go before the town’s special magistrate and faced fines.