June 28, 2012 | by Mark Lee
All Souls wins lengthy liquor license battle

Here’s a game show question for D.C. Council members and Mayor Vincent Gray: Which took longer?

(1) The length of time between the arrest of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and his subsequent jury trial and resulting conviction last week on 45 of 48 felony counts of child sexual abuse, or

(2) The eight months it took the All Souls Bar planned for a long abandoned small commercial building in the rapidly developing Shaw neighborhood at the corner of 8th and T streets to survive opposition by two small ad hoc license protest groups and be granted a liquor license last week by the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board?

If you correctly chose the latter and also knew that the lengthy delay caused by vociferous and unrepresentative protesters was based on a moralistic anti-alcohol complaint, you’re likely to make it to the final contestant showcase round. Maybe even win a relaxing vacation for two to a place where sanity in licensing matters prevails.

More exciting, though, are the ultimate rewards available if the D.C. Council reforms current ABC regulations to preclude the ability of ad hoc license protest groups of only five or more people and small unrepresentative citizens groups to directly intervene in the liquor licensing process.

“That’s right, Bob, tell ‘em what they could win!”

First, fairness would be restored to the process. Second, manipulation of the system by small self-identified groups would be eliminated. Third, majority sentiment would no longer be subsumed to the exaggerated power reserved only for those who are opposed to a license approval exclusively allowed to play the game. Fourth, local gentry dripping in entitlement would lose the power to delay licensing applications at extraordinary financial cost to community small businesses or force owners into signing inappropriately named “Voluntary Agreements” restricting operations in order to avoid financial hardship or disaster. Fifth, broadly popular and desired neighborhood amenities would not face the travesty of prohibition by the few.

In addition, community economic development and the city’s primary hometown business and tax revenue provider would not be controlled by the whims of a mere minority.

To its credit, an increasingly professional, efficient and astute ABC Board chastised the license protesters for their rationale in opposing the application in their order granting a license to All Souls Bar. The board, in a June 20 decision, rejected “the unsubstantiated assertion” by the two protest groups that “the Applicant’s tavern will be detrimental to the students of Cleveland Elementary School” across the street from the property and “that the mere sight of adults in a tavern consuming alcohol is harmful to children.”

Take a moment to catch your breath. You can’t make this stuff up.

Shocking, however, is that the stupefying power of these tiny ad hoc groups and small citizens associations with little actual resident participation to engage in all-out battle against liquor license applicants or existing businesses remains fully in effect.

All they really need to do is invoke the mantra that an application “will adversely impact the peace, order, quiet, pedestrian safety and real property values.”

More than a decade-long legacy of unyielding obstruction in this critical local business arena by dogmatic bands of long familiar usual suspects has galvanized strong public support for regulatory reform. The folklore-status seven-year fight waged by only six Dupont Circle residents against Hank’s Oyster Bar now recently reignited is spurring accelerating calls to reserve neighborhood input on alcohol licensing issues to the open and accessible forum provided by elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs).

D.C. Council member Jim Graham, who chairs the committee overseeing alcohol-licensing matters, has announced that he will be introducing long-overdue legislation this week to address a number of modest and sensible repairs to current alcohol licensing regulations. Whether these reforms will adequately address or later be expanded by the full Council to eliminate the glaring inequities in an antiquated licensing protest process remains to be seen.

D.C. residents understand what’s at stake and public opinion is clear. Whether the city’s elected officials will exhibit the common sense and political courage to enact meaningful reform measures is what we will discover.

If they fail, all we’ll take home are some lovely parting gifts.

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

1 Comment
  • I long for the day when Washington is “a place where sanity in licensing matters prevails.” Really?? This is up for debate? Sheesh. GREAT article! And hilarious.

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