Liquor stores in the District may apply to the city's Alcoholic Beverage Control Board for a license to extend their hours until midnight under legislation narrowly approved yesterday by the D.C. Council.
Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) introduced an amendment that would give the ABC Board the authority to determine which of the city's 600 stores that sell alcoholic beverages can stay open for the additional two hours.
The council's vote to extend the hours of the stores on a case-by-case basis passed 7 to 6.
Some members argued that asking the ABC Board to decide which stores could stay open past the current 10 p.m. closing time placed an enormous burden on the board.
The vote came after a contentious debate that began last month when council member Harold Brazil (D-At Large) suggested extending the liquor stores' operating hours to midnight, the closing hour for stores in neighboring jurisdictions. Brazil dropped his proposal, although some council members argued that District residents were taking tax dollars to Maryland and Virginia when they bought liquor outside the city limits.
Cropp's amendment was part of the Alcoholic Beverage Amendment Act of 2004, which has been under review by the council's Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs for five years and was unanimously approved on its final vote yesterday. Cropp said she wanted to change the closing time but still give discretion to the ABC Board to withhold such hours for stores that are not good neighbors.
"It's not just a blanket for everybody," Cropp said. "Not only do [the stores] have to apply but they have to be granted permission to do it. There are establishments that create problems in the neighborhood. How do we not penalize the stores that do well and people who shop in the District?"
Another measure, pushed by council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), was approved after it failed on two prior occasions. It prohibits the sale of single containers of beer at liquor stores and groceries in Ward 4. This is similar to a moratorium that passed four years ago in Mount Pleasant in Ward 1.
Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), the most outspoken opponent of extending store hours, said he worries that the ABC Board will be paralyzed by a large number of applications. He said residents would have to appear before the ABC Board every time a store in their neighborhood applied for the extension. He called it "a recipe for disaster."
Most stores probably will try to take advantage of the new law because they can earn more money from late sales and their liquor license will be more valuable if approved for longer hours, the lawmakers and neighborhood activists agreed.
"I'm very concerned that we will end up with a very inconsistent, uneven and unfair application of who gets to remain open and who doesn't," Graham said. "We're going to end up with a crazy patchwork quilt with inconsistent hours."
Council member David A. Catania (R-At Large), who also voted against the legislation, said he was concerned because it did not include specific criteria by which the ABC Board would determine which stores got the extension.
He said the measure does not distinguish between stores that are orderly and those that are nuisances.
In response, Cropp said that the ABC Board should submit criteria for the council to review.
Charles A. Burger, chairman of the ABC Board, said the legislation most likely will require more work from the board's 38-member staff.
"It definitely presents challenges," he said.