After a decade of controversy, the D.C. Council late last month finally made meaningful revisions to the city’s much-maligned and long-unpopular alcohol-licensing process for hospitality and nightlife businesses.
Due to the high-profile battle waged by a notorious Dupont Circle “Gang of 5” ad hoc license protest group against chef/restaurateur Jamie Leeds’ Hank’s Oyster Bar warranting mention from the dais by multiple Council members, the approved reforms might justifiably bear her name. Better to also include the many others subjected to similar foolishness.
Took ‘em forever. Some would say the legislative repairs are far too modest a measure of regulatory relief given the District’s dysfunctional and out-of-balance licensing procedures.
One thing is clear – the political dynamic has now changed. No longer will self-proclaimed size-shrunk gaggles of the few, purporting to represent the many, hold unbridled sway over entire neighborhoods. Their days manipulating the system to impose their own edicts while abridging fair and consistent application of citywide laws are numbered.
Not that they won’t try. But the reforms to be signed by Mayor Vincent Gray within a week for immediate implementation make obstruction more difficult.
While the D.C. Council failed to eliminate legal standing for tiny “Gang of 5” protest groups and small unrepresentative citizens associations, allowing them to directly intervene in the licensing process, they took alternate steps to mitigate their outsized influence.
D.C. Council member Jim Graham, chair of the Council committee with oversight of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) matters, discarded the recommendation of a “working group” he had assembled to review existing regulations requiring that ad hoc license protest group members reside or own property within a 400-ft. radius of the target establishment. While this cheered license protesters, the provision was considered to be of nominal value by hospitality supporters. The seven-year licensing struggle suffered by Hank’s, for example, would not have been affected.
Although citizen association and Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) representatives outnumbered hospitality business and Business Improvement District (BID) representatives by nearly two-to-one, the working group’s proposal primarily served to confirm the need for regulatory repair as a widely supported public proposition.
Instead, with encouragement from the business community along with residents and patrons calling for reform, the D.C. Council initiated more substantial revisions.
First, the application process for new businesses will be subject to statutory timeframes, reducing the threat of long licensing delays by protest groups or ANCs used to extract operating restrictions. No longer will bankruptcy before beginning be the interventionist weapon of opportunity. Businesses won’t face coerced early closing hours, limits on music and entertainment, restrictions on outdoor space use, downsized guest counts or other prohibitions as the price of expeditious license approval.
The process remains unwieldy and inordinately lengthy. But new venues are now guaranteed a shortened process and definitive schedule. After an initial period of application announcement and protest filings, businesses proceed to an ABC Board hearing within 60 days, a new requirement. Instead of the board having 90 days to subsequently issue a ruling, decisions will be required within 60 days.
Second, in a change more about policy implications than mere semantics, the widely reviled scourge of so-called “Voluntary Agreements” no longer exists. Misused by protest groups to extract operating concessions and by ANCs to legislate turf rules as a perceived licensing protocol, the option for a business to enter into such an arrangement has been renamed “Settlement Agreement” – a functionally accurate moniker implying nothing else.
Third, should an existing licensee or new business reach an agreement with the applicable elected ANC, any protest by a random “Gang of 5” will be discarded. Unfortunately, the same does not apply to citizens associations, but the message is unmistakable – past shenanigans will no longer enjoy countenance.
Limits have also been placed on the types of restrictions permitted in an optional Settlement Agreement, should a business choose to negotiate rather than proceed to a now accelerated adjudication.
Is it enough? Hardly. Will it restore some fairness for the city’s largest private sector industry, soon-to-be largest employer, and primary revenue producer? Absolutely.
The signal is clear – outdated enterprise regulation in a growing modern city is as much a relic of the past as those who support it.
Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.