Booze law overhaul

Bar owners watch as city muses alcohol code changes, smoking ban

Falling-down drunks, beware. Atlanta officials are about to close the loophole that has long allowed you to enjoy stuporous naps on park benches or relax unmolested face-down on the curb.

"Under the old law, if you were passed out cold on the sidewalk, the police couldn't arrest you unless they asked you to move and you refused," explains Councilwoman Anne Fauver. If, however, you were so smashed you couldn't speak or move, the fuzz had to let sleeping drunks lie.

For more than a year, Fauver has overseen a comprehensive rewrite of the city's alcohol code that seeks to clean up legal discrepancies, tie up loopholes and fix what she says are problems in the existing system. The first four of her ordinance changes — what she terms a set of "no-brainers" — were approved by City Council Sept. 20.

The council also took up a proposed citywide smoking ban for restaurants and some bars before sending it back to committee for additional retooling. The anti-smoking measure is expected to return to City Council before the end of the year.

While none of the more than two dozen booze-related measures is likely to generate the same level of public outcry that accompanied last year's decision to roll back last call from 4 a.m. to 2:30 a.m., several of the provisions could have a serious impact on the Atlanta bar scene — including one proposal that could have a devastating effect on the Virginia-Highland and Little Five Points bar districts.

Among the proposed alterations to the city's alcohol code:

- Believe it or not, Atlanta has no bars, officially speaking. Because the city has no official definition for "bar," drinking establishments have fallen under the heading of restaurants, such as Moe's & Joe's, or nightclubs, such as Lenny's. The proposed change would define a bar as a standalone business that serves drinks but not much food, seats between 25 and 100 patrons and, like a nightclub, is closed on Sundays.

- Current city law requires nightclubs to offer live entertainment at least 20 days a month, a throwback to the pre-DJ era. The proposed rewrite would dispense with this anachronistic rule.

- Another addition to the alcohol rules would prohibit drinking in public parks unless during licensed festivals. In other words, the days of spending Saturday afternoon in the park with a hibachi and a cooler of beer are over. Actually, this is already a Parks and Recreation Department rule that Fauver wanted to reflect in the alcohol code.

- Under the "duh" category, no one under the age of 21 would be allowed to obtain a license to operate a bar or nightclub; currently, the minimum age is 18.

- Another provision would license "brewery tasting rooms," such as those already in operation at the Sweetwater and Atlanta Brewing Co. breweries, requiring them to pay a new annual licensing fee of $2,250. For fairness' sake, Fauver says, the city wanted the fee to be the same as decreed under state law for winery tasting rooms — despite that there are no wineries in Atlanta. Also, unlike wineries, breweries are not permitted by the state to sell their product on site. Georgia breweries are only allowed to give visitors free samples.

The biggest change for brewery customers, however, is that instead of enjoying a veritable "free beer buffet," patrons would be able to sample no more than 15 ounces — 1 oz. shy of a pint — over a two-hour period. Limiting the amount of beer that can be given away will cut down on "college kids getting loaded on brewery tours," says Fauver, who credits the Georgia Tech-based anti-drinking group GTSmart with opening the council's eyes to the problem.

- One of the more significant proposals would make it easier for neighborhood groups to gather information about alcohol license applicants, such as who owns the property where the bar would be located, what kind of establishment it would be, etc. Since the idea here is to give homeowners more potential ammunition for opposing bars that would make bad neighbors, the full impact of the legislation wouldn't be known for several years.

- And, finally, there's a proposal written by Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong that would have a brutal effect on several local nightlife districts by requiring older bars and restaurants to comply with current parking requirements. Since many longtime watering holes — think Atkins Park, Limerick Junction and Highland Tap, to name a few — do not have adequate dedicated parking under current city guidelines, they could lose their licenses to serve alcohol if they don't procure parking lots.

Even Fauver, who cites the lack of parking around popular bars as a serious public-safety concern for nearby residents, doesn't believe that Archibong's proposal has enough council support to go anywhere.

Ironically, the local bar district most cited as a parking nightmare would be unaffected by the Archibong measure; Buckhead Village is designated a Special Public Interest district where parking requirements are waived.

Bar owners and other interested Atlantans may still have opportunities to speak up on some of the proposals. The council's Public Safety Committee will discuss some of the provisions at its 3 p.m. work sessions on Sept. 30 and Oct. 14.

Archibong is also the author of the proposed "Clean Indoor Air Ordinance," which would prohibit smoking in Atlanta's restaurants, but could allow it in attached bars, providing that the rooms are separated by floor-to-ceiling walls. Nightclubs and standalone bars would be exempt from the ban.

Warren Bruno, an activist for the local bar community and owner of Atkins Park, the city's oldest bar, is hopeful that the city and restaurant owners can reach a compromise.

"A lot of our customers wanted a smoke-free environment, so we eliminated smoking in the dining room," he says. "But we're a restaurant really only until 11 p.m. After that, we're essentially a bar, and our late-night customers expect to be able to smoke."

The measure was sent back to the council's City Utilities Committee to address several contentious aspects, such as the minimum distance smoking would be allowed outside of a restaurant. There's also a question of who would enforce the smoking ban — the Fulton County Health Department or the city's fire department — says Councilman Howard Shook, who chairs the Utilities Committee.

Shook hopes that when the ban next resurfaces, it will have lost some of its controversy.

"I'm tired of bar owners telling me I'm ruining their business," he says, "and I don't need another health advocate telling me that smoking is bad for you."