September 14, 2012 at 7:20 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Lesbian restaurant owner wins fight to expand outdoor patio
Hank's Oyster Bar, gay news, Washington Blade

Hank’s Oyster Bar (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board released a decision on Thursday allowing lesbian chef Jamie Leeds to expand the outdoor seating and operating hours of her popular Dupont Circle area restaurant Hank’s Oyster Bar.

The board’s decision appears to have ended a two-year dispute in which a group of six neighborhood activists sought to block the restaurant’s application to expand its outdoor patio to accommodate 20 additional customers, an increase from 20 to 40.

“It feels like such a relief,” Leeds told the Washington City Paper. “We’re thankful that it’s over and that we can move on.”

Hank’s bills itself as a neighborhood restaurant rather than a gay bar, and Leeds and her supporters have said opponents did not appear to be targeting the establishment because it’s gay owned.

But D.C. nightlife advocates, both gay and straight, said Leeds emerged as one of the first neighborhood businesses with a liquor license to rally public support behind her challenge to a longstanding city policy that allows just five citizens to protest a liquor license and impose a “voluntary agreement” to restrict the hours of operation and prohibit the lateral expansion of a bar or restaurant.

At the time Hank’s first applied for the expanded patio space in 2010 a group of six citizens, one of whom didn’t live in the immediate neighborhood, invoked their legal right to protest the proposal. The “Gang of Six,” as nightlife advocates called them, acknowledged that no problems had been reported with Hank’s during its five years in business. But they said the termination of a voluntary agreement would set a harmful precedent for future businesses that did cause problems in the neighborhood. The six citizens argued that as a matter of principle, they would oppose ending all voluntary agreements, including the one signed by Hank’s five years earlier.

The dispute received widespread media attention in June of this year when one of the citizens opposed to Hank’s patio expansion reportedly called the liquor board to report that Hank’s was planning to use the additional patio space on the day of the city’s Capital Pride Parade, which passes next the restaurant on 17th Street.

City inspectors responded on the night before the parade by ordering Hank’s shut down the expanded patio space, citing a court order obtained by the opponents several weeks earlier.

“The ongoing harassment by this small band of residents is astonishing and the timing of this individual’s complaint before the annual celebration is despicable,” Leeds wrote in an open letter to the community.

Leeds called for the repeal of the law that allows as few as five citizens to contest liquor license applications.

She said that at the time she first opened Hank’s Oyster Bar in 2005 at 1624 Q Street, N.W., in the heart of the 17th Street business and restaurant district, she was pressured by some of the same nearby residents into signing the voluntary agreement. Among other things, the agreement prevented Hank’s from laterally expanding its seating and occupancy. The agreement also required that the restaurant close both its indoor and outdoor space at midnight.

Leeds said that had she resisted signing the agreement the neighborhood activists pushing it threatened to continue their legal protest against her license application, forcing her to spend large sums in legal fees and delaying for months if not more than a year her ability to open for business.

Five years later, when Leeds learned that an adjacent restaurant was closing, she applied to the ABC Board to have her voluntary agreement terminated to enable her to expand into the adjacent space, which would allow for more outdoor seating. She noted that in her five years of operating Hank’s she had yet to encounter any complaints or problems with nearby residents.

Most neighborhood residents supported the expansion request, saying the popular restaurant was often full, requiring loyal customers to wait as long as an hour to be seated, according to gay activist and nearby resident Peter Rosenstein.

The Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission quickly approved Leeds’ request and forwarded its decision to the ABC Board, which has authority to make the final decision on liquor related matters.

The board approved the request, saying that various changes, including a change in zoning regulations for 17th Street and the elimination of a moratorium on new liquor licenses, met the legal requirements for voiding a voluntary agreement.

Earlier this year, the six citizens that initiated the 2005 voluntary agreement and who opposed Hank’s 2010 application for the expansion appealed the board’s decision before the D.C. Court of Appeals.

The appeals court overturned the board’s decision and remanded the case back to the board, requiring that the board review issues the court said it had not reviewed thoroughly enough when it issued its decision granting the request to end the voluntary agreement.

Michael Hibey, the attorney representing the six residents opposed to eliminating the agreement, couldn’t’ immediately be reached for comment and to determine whether the residents plan to appeal the board’s latest decision in favor of Hank’s.

Andrew Kline, who has represented Hank’s as an administrative counsel, said the difficulties Leeds encountered in applying for a modest expansion of what he called a well-run, problem-free restaurant has drawn attention to the need for regulatory changes in the city’s liquor licensing procedures.

“This situation with Hank’s has highlighted the abuses in this process and caused people to come forward and say we have had enough of this,” Kline said.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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