June 20, 2012 at 4:14 pm EDT | by Mark Lee
Time to fix D.C.’s liquor licensing mess

It’s a pity that hearings conducted by the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board are not videotaped.

If they were, every D.C. Council member and the mayor could be strapped in chairs and forced to view the entire mind-numbing 4-1/2 hour alcohol licensing protest hearing held last week that proved to be a stunning illustration of what is wrong with the city’s current regulatory process. District elected officials would eyeball firsthand the mess they have allowed to plague restaurant and bar alcohol licensing procedures for far too long.

The infamous seven-year battle waged by a group of only six Dupont Circle area objectors against respected and award-winning restaurant Hank’s Oyster Bar exemplifies problems inherent in the current licensing system. The popular neighborhood business operated by lesbian chef-owner Jamie Leeds, located adjacent to the corner of 17th and Q streets, was forced to close half of its outdoor patio beginning on the day the recent Capital Pride parade floated by due to the relentless efforts of the required “gang of five or more” license protesters.

At the hearing on June 13, the protagonists in this infuriating tale awkwardly hemmed and hawed on the witness stand as they were repeatedly unable to explain to the board why they had been unresponsive to multiple entreaties by Leeds to meet in early 2010 to discuss the restrictions of a so-called “Voluntary Agreement” they forced upon the business in 2005. Incredulously, they cited only a claim nowhere in evidence for a demanded “Powerpoint presentation” on all details prior to even agreeing to talk.

The original operating restrictions, including seating capacity limits, had allowed the highly anticipated restaurant to finally open but subsequently prevented the opportunity to expand into an adjacent vacant space unexpectedly made possible by modifications to an area licensing moratorium. Leeds had little choice but to seek relief through termination of the agreement, eventually granted later that year.

The latest hearing was required by a May 17 District Court of Appeals remand of the issue for additional ABC Board review resulting from a lawsuit initiated by the protesters. The appeals court ruled that the board had not considered all elements required for a “Voluntary Agreement” termination, acknowledging confusion originating with poorly constructed regulatory language.

Discerning the group’s motivation for intransigence is easy. Obstinacy had conveyed to them inordinate power in years past. If they simply refused to meet, what could the business do? The tiny group understood that, once again and as bestowed by city rules, they held all the high cards.

The questions are simple: How much longer will elected officials permit small and unrepresentative groups to unfairly derail the licensing process and abuse the system? When will city leaders reserve community input to the open and accessible public forum provided by the elected Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) accountable to all residents? Does the District government possess the common sense to put a stop to out-of-balance procedures thwarting local amenities and community small businesses fueling the city’s signature hometown hospitality economy?

As it stands now, small ad hoc groups comprised of only five individuals and self-identified commonly unrepresentative citizens groups – some formed primarily to interject themselves into licensing matters – utilize outsized abilities to delay or deny alcohol licensing approvals or force licensees into signing restrictive “Voluntary Agreements” to survive.

Reforming this madness should be a top priority for Jim Graham, who chairs the Council committee with oversight of alcohol licensing, along with his colleagues and the mayor. Instead of kowtowing to the loud voices of the few, it’s time for Graham to step up and put an end to these ridiculous city rules.

Jack Evans, representing the midtown commercial district stretching from Georgetown to the U.S. Capitol with the largest number of alcohol-licensed businesses, also has a responsibility to initiate reform of current archaic procedures. As Committee on Finance and Revenue chair, he should understand the importance of common sense and fairness in managing local economic development and reaping the revenues generated by the city’s largest private sector business segment.

As both politicians know from the avalanche of correspondence they have received in recent days, concerned constituents are awaiting action.

Council members Graham and Evans, it’s time to fix this folly.

Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

  • Great and timely article! We have launched a petition in support of Hank’s asking not only to rule in their favor but to initiate much needed change to the law allowing only a very small fe to represent all. In less than 3 days we have over 1500 signatures. Keep signing! URL attached.

  • I remember when either the Blade or City Paper did a kind of exit interview with the creator of Duplex Diner, who said if he had actually complied with DC regulations, or even waited for answers about what they mean, his restaurant would never have existed. Every day I ride my bike by shuttered businesses in DC, like LiteStar restaurant down at 22nd and L or Thai Kitchen down at 23rd and M. Closed and for rent for months, as the old site of Lambda Rising was all last year.

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