May 22, 2013 at 3:40 pm EDT | by Mark Lee
Matchbox sparks battle with ANC ‘mini-legislators’

Allow a D.C. Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) an inch and eventually they fancy themselves rulers.

Along the Barracks Row commercial corridor on Capitol Hill, it’s more like being beaten with a yardstick.

The area’s ANC-6B has taken umbrage at the refusal of popular and well-regarded Matchbox restaurant, on the 8th Street, S.E., business strip near Eastern Market, to kowtow to demands for new restrictions on operating hours. Advisory commissioners are startled by the establishment’s strong backbone. It appears that many neighborhood residents, however, are cheering Matchbox for its courageous and welcomed resistance.

With any luck, the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board will simply toss aside the liquor license renewal protest filed by the ANC. Better yet, the Board should school the group on the legitimate basis for a license protest in an effort to stem a growing tide of regulatory system manipulation by ANCs.

What offense caused the ANC to file a protest opposing the restaurant’s license renewal? What problem generated reports that ANC-6B01 sub-area representative David Garrison exclaimed he was “flabbergasted” at the “audacity of the move” by the restaurant?

Nothing more than Matchbox’s refusal to roll back its existing sidewalk café closing time by two hours each evening in order to comply with an ANC attempt at coercing adherence to a nascent “policy” to extract restricted hours from all existing licensees and new applicants. Not surprisingly, neighborhood reaction has not been favorable to Garrison, his ANC cohorts, or the small number of supporters backing the renegade effort.

A disturbing trend among some ANCs is accelerating moves to impose “cookie-cutter” restrictions on operating hours for hospitality establishments. Logan Circle ANC-2F, for example, previously undertook a similar stance – demanding “compliance” in certain areas with a standardized “policy” requiring early venue closing times throughout the week in exchange for not protesting liquor license applications. Incredibly, this so-called “neighborhood policy” is proposed even on commercially zoned corridors.

These demands are foisted upon businesses not yet open and existing venues in full compliance with city laws. Restrictions in advance of operation or without any substantive evidence of serious violations, legitimate complaints, real problems or even a rational legal justification are egregious.

ANC overreach does not comport with justification for a community review process designed to rectify quantifiable issues or demonstrable problems resolved by restriction. Utilization of a “Settlement Agreement” implies that there is actual evidence both that a problem is real and that an imposed license limitation would serve to solve it. They are not intended as instruments to establish special regulatory policy within an area at the whimsy of neighborhood nannies.

Thrusting a litany of operating restrictions, notably truncated hours of service, at business owners new and longstanding while simultaneously threatening to protest licensing approval absent surrender, is not what city law envisioned. It’s a hell of a way to treat the District’s economic golden goose also providing the amenities for which most residents are clamoring.

Inadequately supervised by the D.C. Council and insufficiently reined in by city agency adjudication boards, ANC delusions of power have spawned the behavior of “mini-legislators” intending to set arbitrary uniform regulatory policies for their small jurisdictions. A lack of oversight and appropriate control has allowed ANCs to circumvent equitable application of governing regulations.

The result is capricious rule-by-the-few and a citywide patchwork of variable operating rights – placing businesses at a competitive disadvantage with venues in adjoining areas or elsewhere in D.C.

The “great weight” consideration that is required to be given ANC advisory recommendations has always been the “great burden” of local businesses and neighborhood development. Even more so as ANCs have been allowed to gradually encroach on the fair and equal treatment of community enterprise.

ANC abuse of the merely advisory role embodied in their name, contrasted with efforts to stealthily expand their power, should be halted. More important, their grandiose power grabbing underscores the need for long-overdue regulatory reforms in this arena.

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at [email protected]

  • Spoken like someone who doesn’t have to contend with the noise and intrusion that these sidewalk seating areas and summer gardens inflict on the neighboring residents. At what hour should one reasonable expect to have the peaceable use of their adjoining home? Yes there needs to be some level of tolerance if residents are to co-exist with the amenities that make it a livable neighborhood. However, in most cases the people enjoying the amenities aren’t the ones who suffer the effects or reap the financial gains of the disruption. In almost all cases, if the restaurant owner’s family were being negatively impacted by the outdoor dining, the situation would cease. What does that tell you?

  • “adjoining home”? Show us this imaginary home that adjoins Matchbox’s Cap Hill location. There is no residence adjoining it, not on it’s left, not to it’s right, not above it, not in front nor across the street. In fact, show us a home adjoining ANY of the sidewalk café spaces on that block.

    • The poster is not necessarily talking about Matchbox specifically, as this is not just about Matchbox specifically, but the precedent it sets for if every and any bar that wants to be open for all hours of the night.

      • By “precedent” you are referring to the precedent of limiting a business owner’s right to enjoy the full privilege of a liquor license and the operating hours that convey with it, without any specific problem or issue other than the sheer audacity of a well-run restaurant standing up to a blatant attempt by the anc to arbitrarily limit all the operating hours on a commercial street, right? (Oh, I guess not…)

  • (auto fill error with it’s for its)

  • Actually,IJS, it tells me nothing. Yes, folks who live next door have a right to be heard, but the writer’s point is that does not warrant a blanket, one size fits all rule, for every establishment in the neighborhood, particularly one from which the neighborhood has experienced few problems. You missed the point, ISJ.

  • True, I don’t know the bar of which you speak or its juxtiposition in the neighborhood, but I am not so sure a blanket restriction isn’t exactly what is called for. If the rules are consistent and consistently applied, then a bar owner or someone moving “near” said bar can understand the expectations and plan accordingly. What we have now is a piecemeal approach being promoted by a handful of people that in many cases are elected by a handful of people and only hear from a handful of people.

  • Re: I’m Just Sayin’ – May 23, 2013 at 9:39 pm

    Exactly. Which is why the citywide regulations on dining/drinking/dancing hours should govern, not some random advisory group’s special restrictions. (Of course a business can choose to close earlier for their own reasons if they want.) Otherwise all we end up with is a hodgepodge of differing rules in different neighborhoods. I would hate to run a business and compete under those kinds of ridiculous limits.

    In Dupont and Logan alot of these ANC types are gay. Maybe that’s why they think they’re Queen of the kingdom?

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