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Council Moves Closer to Overhauling Liquor Laws

The D.C. Council unanimously passed the first reading of a set of amendment proposals that would overhaul the District’s liquor laws at the council’s last legislative session for 2012. Toward the end of a marathon legislative session on Tuesday, Dec. 4, the council voted to push through the Omnibus Alcoholic Regulation Amendment Act of 2012 for consideration at a later date.

If passed, the law will allow Sunday sales by certain retailers; allow full-service grocery stores to sell 64-ounce “growlers” to carry out; and the legalization of “wine pubs” in the city.

“The bill resulted from three years of work in two taskforces that covered noise and alcohol,” said Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), chair of the Committee on Human Services with oversight of the Alcohol and Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA), which issues these licenses. He said the legislation incorporated 43 recommendations of the Alcoholic Beverage Control taskforce, which met more than 10 times between December 2011 and April 2012.

“This legislation addresses the problem of spillover noise in neighborhoods that are adjacent to entertainment areas,” Graham said. “The bill requires a nighttime complaint line and a response team at ABRA that will be operational every night until one hour after the legal bar closing time.”

In a last minute twist on the dais, however, Graham introduced additional proposals that turned around his own amendments. One such amendment required a group of five or more residents or property owners to be within a 400-foot radius to qualify for standing to oppose liquor licenses. He pulled this during the first reading. Prior to this reading, several community groups had already contacted council members to protest the bill, something that Ward 4 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Sara Green said was an early Christmas present for the alcohol industry – one they didn’t need.

“And what does the community get – a lump of coal,” said Green, 62, who’s lived in the District for 37 years. “This is a really bad bill and the industry got what it wanted.”

At issue, said Green, is that the task force that worked on the recommendations for several years boasted it comprised half the community and half the alcohol industry. Yet, she said, no residents from Wards 3, 4 and 5 were represented in the conversations.

Even worse, notices of public meetings were given in short time frames; and she heard from participants that there were no real discussions in the meetings. Due to the skewed representation, “the recommendations were done in a way that is not in the spirit of open public meetings with a process that was suspect,” Green said.

She added, however, she was taken aback by Graham’s turnaround on Dec. 4.

“I was surprised he didn’t make an attempt to weed it down any more than he did,” said Green who added that on Nov. 26, her ANC issued a resolution affirming its opposition to the amendments and noted that the Federation of Citizens Associations and the League of Women Voters also opposed them. “Overall, we got some very good support from several council members, including (Mary) Cheh, (Muriel) Bowser, (David) Catania and (Kenyan) McDuffie. They spent a lot of time with us, listening to our concerns.”

Cheh introduced many amendments of her own, which addressed some of the issues Green mentioned.

During the legislative meeting, the D.C. Council delayed a vote to ban alcohol sales at low-volume food stores such as CVS and Walgreens pharmacies. Council member Graham felt there needed to be hearings to better define the term full-service grocery stores, and he would work with Cheh by the second reading in 2013.

Burnie Williams III owns Chat’s Liquors on Barrack’s Row on Capitol Hill. Although protestors believe that retailers who sell alcohol like Williams will benefit from the law if it’s passed, he’s not so sure.

“I think the timing is curious,” said Williams, 34. “With the Costco now opening up, not having Sunday sales is something that doesn’t fit into its business model.” On Nov. 29, the District opened its first Costco Wholesale warehouse at the Shops at Dakota Crossing in Northeast. The location not only sells wine as does the Costco in Alexandria, Va., but also other alcoholic beverages – some in bulk – such as whisky and tequila.

“Just with bringing in the largest wine retailer in the country, Costco is now in our neighborhood,” Williams said. “When it comes to the smaller and independent retailer, we’re going to have to compete.” He said the pending legislation would probably benefit Costco more than his business.

Williams, who has been operating Chat’s for 12 years as a second-generation operator, said he has had some issues with the ANC in Ward 6, which insisted he sign a Voluntary Agreement (VA) with the community to not sell two or three-packs of beer.

“We just had a protest lifted from my license,” Williams said.

Williams explained he didn’t sign the VA as most of his products are high end – mainly wines – but he may have occasion to sell a gift pack of three different types of high-end foreign beers but these would be on the list of banned items on the VA. He said that the ANCs were not giving consideration to each individual store and kept all liquor stores to the same blanket rule. There are instances where a bottle of imported beer can cost more than a local bottle of wine. That affects his bottom line.

“I can understand where a problem can come when you’re next to a place where people are panhandling and if it’s not addressed, it can cause issues,” he added. “But if you’re doing everything to run a good business but the ANCs still continue to cause issues, then I can see how this can help.”

However, Green said she has no sympathy for any of the alcohol retailers as the omnibus bill restricts some of what the VA’s would allow, which Green said would hamper neighborhoods and businesses from shaping genuinely useful agreements responding to different community needs.

“This is the basic problem with how the city does things,” Green said. “When you’re given a license you get it forever and you can sell it to whomever, and residents get stuck.”

Although she is pleased Graham made an about turn in some amendments, she’s still not happy with the process.

“When you do a bill like this, it’s a bad bill and it sets a bad precedent,” Green said. “Without the genuine input from the community, this is just bad governance.”