Virginia's controversial Alcholic Beverage Control Commission was repeatedly attacked yesterday by Alexandria politicians who claimed it is insensitive to that city's attempts to control drunkenness in the historic Old Town area.
"Local ABC inspectors are assigned to the area only during the day, while the problems occur at night," said the normally unflappable City Councilman Carlyle C. Ring Jr., his voice rising in anger. "It is fair to request that those charged with enforcing the law should enforce it," he said.
"Our problems are the result of minimal enforcement by the ABC . . . which (suffers from) an increasing loss of credibility in the city," agreed State Del. David G. Speck (R-Alexandria). "If the ABC won't be more responsive to the city, then it is reasonable to expect the General Assembly to exercise greater control" over the commission in the future, he threatened.
The charges came during a four hour hearing in Arlington on whether Virginia should change its ABC's laws. Del. John D. Gray (D-Hampton), chairman of an ABC study committee, dismissed much of the criticism yesterday saying, "if the Alexandria city council and police department wanted to . . . clean up this problem . . . they could do it in two weeks."
City officials disagreed with Gray. State Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. (R-Alexandria), a member of the study committee, said after the hearing, "the big job" for Northern Virginians is convicing "the majority of the (ABC) commission that these problems exist elsewhere in the state. "It will be tragic if we don't do anything," mitchell said.
For several years residents and Alexandria officials have complained that the proliferation of restaurants which serve liquor by the drink has brought too much rowdyism to Old Town.
Officials and residents yesterday said only three or four restaurants among Old Town's 52 ABC-licensed facilities were the cause of the problems. They appealed for stronger state regulation of them.
But most members of the study committee yesterday expressed the belief that Alexandria was a victim of its own success. "Wasn't there an attempt (several years ago) by the city fathers to develop Old Town as another Georgetown?" Gary asked.
"Oh, no," said City Manager Douglas Harman. "In Alexandria there is a deep resentment that we want to be like another Georgetown, which we see as a mecca for teenyboppers who come in to drink beer. It is precisely the Georgetown problem we are trying to avoid," he said.
Del. Johnny Joannou (D-Portsmouth) repeatedly asked why Alexandria simply couldn't outlaw commercial activity in the Old Town area, or step up its law enforcement there.
Harman said such a zoning policy probably would be rejected by the courts, and would have the effect of "destroying" Old Town. Police Cheif Charles T. Strobel told the commission he didn't want to create "a police state through over-enforcement."
Harman complained that there is only one state ABC inspector for all of the city's 187 restaurants, "which is not enough." However, his claim, and Ring's assertion that ABC inspectors work only during the day, when the problems occur at night, was disputed by ABC officials.
Bob Garian, ABC deputy commissioner for regulation, said the agency often sends three-man "undercover" squads of inspectors into Alexandria restaurants seeking violations such as bartenders serving under-age or drunken drinkers. But Garian said the inspectors had "found very little on the premises in the way of violations." Later Garian said he did not know how frequently the teams had gone into Alexandria restaurants.
Lonore Van Swearingen, an Old Town civic leader told the study group that it was the high cencentration of restaurants there that has caused many of the problems. She called on the state to limit the numbers of permits it issues in areas already saturated with ABC-licenses.
One of the restaurants often cited by police and other officials as having a large number of people who primarily drink beer is the Fish Market restaurant, at the corner of King and Union Streets. Owner Ray Giovanoni acknowledged outside the hearing room that officials often complained about his clients, but denied to the study group that alcohol was the only problem.
"Many of these people may be on drugs," he said. "Some of them come to the restaurants already drunk. If you stand outside any hotel . . . eventually you'll see some urinate against a wall," he said.
Alexandria officials said they wanted the state to set up a mechanism so they could testify at the yearly license renewal hearings each permit ABC holder must go through. ABC officials said they wanted to cooperate but did not commit themselves on the city's proposal.
The next meeting of the study committee is scheduled for July 28 in Virginia Beach. Sen. Mitchell said after the hearing that if residents from nearby Norfolk, which he said has problems similar to Alexandria's attend the meeting, "then maybe the committee members will see that this is a statewide problem," and recommend changes in the ABC laws, he said.