March 27, 2013 | by Mark Lee
Moratorium measure rallies residents for reform

As a result of pushing for a contentious business prohibition in D.C.’s most densely populated and rapidly growing center city neighborhoods, a small anti-development group has inadvertently illustrated the need for additional reform of city alcohol licensing regulations.

Not anticipating the widespread community opposition they would generate, it’s likely they now comprehend that their actions have energized and united hundreds calling for fundamental changes in city permitting protocols for popular local dining and socializing amenities.

For the first time and amid one of the District’s largest assemblages of vibrant commerce, residents have joined in large numbers to battle imposition of a liquor license moratorium. Five restricted licensing areas exist elsewhere, most for more than a decade with negative economic development impact, and not a single one has yet been terminated.

A total liquor license moratorium proposed by the tiny group of longtime hospitality business objectors for a nuclear-bomb-blast-sized zone encompassing multiple MidCity neighborhoods appears unlikely to be approved by either the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board or the D.C. Council. The regulatory request would prohibit the opening of any new restaurants or bars and restrict expansion or other changes at existing establishments for at least five years.

An outpouring of community opposition among residents of Logan Circle, Shaw, and the 14th and U streets areas to a regulatory petition filed in December by a controversial citizens association appears to have stunned those requesting the ban. Negative advisory recommendations to the ABC Board by all four affected Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) groups are also anticipated. The Shaw ANC already voted on Feb. 6 to urge rejection.

However, the real worry for the renegade cadre of business licensing opponents has undoubtedly expanded beyond merely defeat on the moratorium proposal.

Entrepreneurs seeking to open a restaurant or bar are quick to discover the obstacles in navigating unduly cumbersome licensing procedures affecting the city’s largest private sector industry. That’s the lesson learned by neighborhood resident Rose Previte while seeking a liquor license for an aptly named Compass Rose tavern adjacent to the corner of 14th and T streets. She now understands why local business owners had forewarned her that the regulatory experience would be protracted, extremely expensive for a small business enterprise and, perhaps worst of all, soul sucking.

Previte’s small eatery and low-key bar to feature global street foods in a comfortable neighborhood-scale environment is planned for a commercial property that until September was an alcohol-licensed café, situated next to the landmark Café Saint-Ex and across the street from recently opened Matchbox restaurant.

The dynamic young businesswoman, with Capitol Hill’s The Pour House tavern co-owner Mike Schuster partnering as an investor, has encountered license protests by both an ad hoc “Gang of 5 or more” and the “citizens group” behind the proposed moratorium. Yet the more numerous supportive neighbors surrounding the business-to-be below the residence of Previte and her husband and NPR “Morning Edition” host David Greene, are excluded from standard licensing review procedures.

Until the D.C. Council acts to eliminate the special “legal standing” of self-designated license protest groups to directly intervene, unrepresentative and unreasonable obstructionists will continue to plague the city’s business environment. While the Council imposed some restrictions on license protests late last year, it is clear that those measures are insufficient to ensure regulatory fairness.

Further reforms allowing all residents to weigh in utilizing the open forum provided by elected ANC members are needed. A remedy allowing all voices to be heard within the existing framework of ANC opportunity to offer the ABC Board an advisory opinion on licensing applications is the commonsense solution.

MidCity neighborhoods are the latest to demonstrate that resident tolerance for the shenanigans of license protest groups has expired. Failure by D.C. Council members and the mayor to enact regulatory reforms in response to this development will only imperil their own community standing as well.

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

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