D.C. to consider revamped liquor laws

November 19, 2012

In a city where many are well schooled in throwing political punches, few skirmishes can match the battles over booze.

With 600,000 residents crammed into a 68-square-mile area packed with 1,808 establishments that sell alcohol, brawls over which can serve booze, for how long and where have come to define neighborhood politics.

But after more than two years of study, the D.C. Council is preparing to consider a bill that aims to bring more order to the city’s liquor laws.

In the first rewrite of alcohol regulations in a decade, council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) is pushing an omnibus bill that redefines neighborhood standing to contest liquor licenses, opens the door to Sunday carryout liquor sales, creates a city “noise hotline” for complaints about loud establishments, authorizes “wine pubs,” and legalizes 64-ounce “growlers” that bars and grocery stores can fill with beer for consumption elsewhere.

“This bill is the result of very extensive deliberations,” Graham said. “There are provisions that are significant and merit careful consideration by this council.”

The council will vote on the bill Dec. 4, but its passage is far from guaranteed as politicians struggle over what role alcohol should play in maintaining a vibrant city.

After years of population decline, D.C. officials became more aggressive in the 2000s in marketing the city’s array of restaurants and bars to potential residents.

The strategy has paid off, as thousands of condominiums and apartments have been built near night-life corridors such as U and H streets. In some respects, the city’s recent population trends have outpaced the supply of bars and restaurants.

City planners often cite “bar and restaurant” as a top request from residents in developing neighborhoods.

This year, at the urging of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), the council took another step toward trying to burnish the city’s night-life credentials by permitting bars and restaurants to serve alcohol until 4 a.m. just before federal and state holidays. The new hours took effect last month, the night before Columbus Day, and officials reported relatively few problems from the later drinking. The next test of the policy will be Wednesday, the night before Thanksgiving.

But managing residential and economic growth in a city that also hosts tens of thousands of weekend partiers from the suburbs is often a messy affair. Some residents complain about noise, public urination, fights and rats after some bars or restaurants open.

At least in theory, District residents hold considerable sway over an establishment’s liquor license.

Under current law, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission, incorporated civic association, an abutting property owner and a police commander have standing to lodge a protest. The law also allows any five individuals to challenge a liquor license, which has resulted in some protracted neighborhood battles.

This year, the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration forced Hank’s Oyster Bar in Dupont Circle to close an outdoor patio for five months after a small group of residents voiced concerns about noise, over the objections of the ANC.

The closure outraged other residents, who said it was too easy for a few to block what the majority saw as neighborhood progress.

Partially because of that dispute, the bill before the council clarifies who can challenge an establishment’s liquor license by rewriting the code to state that the five or more complainants must reside within 400 feet of the establishment whose license is being protested.

The provision, a recommendation of a working group made up of neighborhood and business and night-life leaders, is designed to limit the legal costs and obstacles associated with opening a restaurant or bar in the city.

Mark Lee, a local hospitality advocate, said many bar and restaurant owners have to set aside as much as a $100,000 to defend their liquor licenses from small groups of protesters.

“Do we really want to harm local, small, independent businesses by making it so burdensome, so expensive, so convoluted just to get a license to open up to serve an eagerly waiting resident population?” asked Lee, who is advocating for even more restrictive rules on who has standing to protest. “Small ad-hoc groups are able to slow the process and, under a best-case scenario, it takes eight to 10 months to get a license, and that is a lot of extra capital investment.”

But the 400-foot provision is threatening to derail Graham’s bill when it comes up for debate next month.

“These changes are a step backward in alcohol regulation,” said Abigail Nichols, a Dupont Circle activist who lives near several nightclubs. “There is a structure that implies a bar is not appropriate in all places, at all times, but implementing that is very, very difficult without protest.”

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said he wants an amendment eliminating the 400-foot rule when it comes to establishments with room for 400 or more patrons.

“If you have a very large establishment, it will have impact on neighborhoods beyond 400 feet,” said Wells, noting that patrons of large establishments often park far away.

Wells’s concern reflects the political uncertainty that council members face when it comes to public attitudes about establishments that serve alcohol. On Thursday, Gray and Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) attended the black-tie grand opening of the Huxley Club, the latest occupant of an emerging upscale nightclub zone downtown.

Evans said his office helped the club’s owners cut through city bureaucracy to open in a timely manner, adding that a vibrant night life is central to the city’s future. However, he also said he cannot support the proposed legislation in its current form.

“My ANCs in Georgetown, Dupont Circle and Logan all have significant problems,” Evans said. “It seems to have swung too far away from residents.”

Other sections of the bill appear to be less controversial.

The bill partially scraps the city’s decades-old ban on carry-out liquor sales on Sunday, allowing liquor stores to open contingent upon neighborhood approval. The new wine-pub permit is designed to encourage local wine manufacturers to create the equivalent of a beer-serving brew pub.

The legalization of growlers will allow residents to purchase beer in bulk and test beers from smaller breweries that cannot afford to bottle their product, according to council documents.

Regulators also will have to establish a “noise complaint line” that will be staffed until one hour after last call. They will be expected to immediately follow up on complaints, Graham said.

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
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