October 9, 2013 | by Mark Lee
Has D.C.’s tolerance for booze bans expired?
Mova,gay news,gay politics DC

The city’s five-member ABC Board unanimously denied the request filed last December to prohibit all new licensing and changes to existing licenses. (Washington Blade file photo by Pete Exis)

It took nearly a year to quash it, but the threat of a liquor license moratorium halting future bar and restaurant openings in the multiple neighborhoods comprising D.C.’s vibrant MidCity area ended last week.

Although residents of Logan Circle, Shaw and the 14th and U streets area had finally won a long-anticipated victory against a small “citizens group” that had petitioned for a renewable five-year business ban, most assembled for the announcement by the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board appeared more relieved than celebratory. As people filed out of the room the mood was one of quiet annoyance that so much time had been spent on the matter by so many.

The city’s five-member ABC Board unanimously denied the request filed last December to prohibit all new licensing and changes to existing licenses. The proposed ban was flatly rejected in its entirety, despite agency authority to recommend D.C. Council approval of a modified ban limiting the types of businesses allowed, size of the affected zone, initial moratorium longevity or to make other revisions.

The Board stated in its official notice that the proposed moratorium “is not in the public interest.” The decision also indicated “the Board does not find that the neighborhood suffers from an overconcentration of licensed establishments or that additional establishments will adversely affect this area.” By every statutory measure, including whether additional licenses “will negatively impact the neighborhood’s peace, order and quiet” – the Board ruled in the negative.

The implication that the nearly 50 additional alcohol-licensed bars and restaurants recently opened or announced as planned for the area during review posed no issue was a clear signal that the Board is disinclined, in their words, to “bluntly impose” prohibition. A request by the petitioner group to halt all approvals during the decision-making period had previously been denied.

In rejecting the proposed moratorium, the Board appears to be signaling a growing impatience with this outdated approach to marketplace interference – and the now-known negative impacts and unintended consequences. The decision frequently references moratorium opposition by residents.

It remains to be seen whether the Board really means it or not.

Next up on the “blunt instrument” schedule is disposition of the 23-year “East Dupont” business ban affecting 17th Street and surrounding commercial blocks, followed by the 13-year Adams Morgan moratorium expiring next April. Terminating these moratoriums, two of five in the District including two in Dupont Circle, would be a first. No moratorium has ever been terminated.

The Dupont Circle neighborhood advisory group recently deadlocked in a tied 4-4 vote on a moratorium renewal resolution. An unusual provision in the group’s by-laws grants the chair’s vote “extra weight” in instances of a tie, overruling standard procedural defeat. Unfortunately, chairman Will Stephens – along with Kevin O’Connor, Kishan Putta and Anti-Alcohol Coalition founder and neighborhood advisory rep Abigail Nichols – voted in favor of renewal.

The ABC Board has previously cautioned that moratoriums were never intended to perpetually remain in effect. Consequently, the group’s resolution seeks to curry favor by suggesting adjustment to current restrictions. While two of the requested modifications are either inconsequential or rendered meaningless by separate zoning limitations, a third recommends eliminating the cap on restaurants.

Those voting in favor of extending the moratorium have said it offers a “transition” to later termination. This notion, however, was previously utilized to justify requesting extension with modification in 2010.

The agency was required to temporarily extend the 17th Street moratorium for 120 days following its Sept. 23 expiration, due to a failure by the Dupont advisory group to offer an opinion to the Board in a timely manner. When announced, sometime following an Oct. 24 public hearing, the Board’s determination will be presented to the D.C. Council for an “up-or-down” review. A Board moratorium decision has never been rejected.

It is time to terminate these now out-of-fashion failed experiments and begin to repair a legacy of marketplace misery.

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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