Oxford restaurants get ultimatum

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

OXFORD – The proprietors of some popular restaurants are in for an unpleasant Christmas present from the Oxford Fire Department.
City officials admit at least three downtown restaurants have been allowed to operate above the seating capacity that fire codes allow.
Mayor Pat Patterson said the problem surfaced while reviewing city regulations. He and Fire Chief Mike Hill urged giving the offending businesses until mid-summer of 2012 to come up to code or be forced to live within the seating limits.
“It’s not a new issue, but we’ve got a proactive fire chief,” Patterson told the Board of Aldermen on Monday. “If you have one entrance in some of these places, your capacity is 49.”
Restaurant 208, City Grocery and Ajax Diner each have only one public exit. (Exits through kitchens cannot be counted unless they are separated by a wall.)
Hill said the regulations on restaurants, theaters and other “assembly occupancy” buildings with capacities of 50 or more are stricter than those for offices, stores and other occupancy types.
“Out of the 20 deadliest fires in the United States … nine of them were from assembly occupancies,” he said.
When Patterson said he and Hill wouldn’t act without the board’s support, Ward 2 Ernest “E.O.” Oliver acknowledged that “the most beautiful Square in the world” wasn’t designed by modern safety standards.
“Our responsibility is for the health, safety and welfare of our citizens, and if it’s not meeting code, we need to back whatever the professionals are saying,” he said.
Board members informally agreed Hill would deliver written notice that the offending restaurants have until Aug. 1, 2012, to add another exit or live with the 49-seat capacity.
“I think we need to give them some notice and, frankly, accept the risk,” the mayor said. “But let them know that Aug. 1, 2012, we’re going to enforce it.”
errol.castens@journalinc.com