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Fight over Va-Hi theater heating up

Measurement of 300 feet could determine fate of venue

It doesn't seem like a topic that would warrant much discussion. After all, how many ways can you measure 300 feet?

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When it comes to the city of Atlanta's alcohol laws, however, determining 300 feet is no simple task. And it's particularly problematic for a historic Virginia-Highland theater whose owner wants to operate it as a convention center hosting bar mitzvahs, weddings, live music and community theater.

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All Atlanta businesses that serve booze — with the exception of restaurants and large shopping centers — must do so at least 300 feet from the nearest private residence. On the surface, the rule shouldn't pose a problem for the fully restored and ready-to-open Hilan Theatre. The owner of the Hilan has mapped the nearest residence at 315 feet from the theater's door, according to the theater's liquor license application.

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A lawyer retained by the Virginia-Highland Civic Association, however, is challenging that measurement. Jonathan Weintraub says his gauge of 300 feet would place the Hilan well within range of the nearest home. As a result, the 1932 structure tucked behind the Ben & Jerry's and Starbucks on North Highland Avenue — complete with two bars, two greenrooms, a rooftop deck and room for more than 700 people — would be prohibited from pouring.

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"What you have," says Peggy Harper, a member of the city board that votes on liquor license applications, "is a contradiction."

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Harper says the License & Review Board, which is scheduled to rule on the Hilan's liquor license application on Aug. 15, will have to decide whether to consider a newer definition of how to measure 300 feet — or adhere to the previous definition, which still exists in another part of the alcohol code. What's more, the theater's application was filed before the definition was changed.

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The newer part of the code says 300 feet "shall be measured by straight line." The older definition states distances "shall be measured by the pedestrian route of traffic."

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Weintraub claims that, if measuring by straight line, the nearest residence is fewer than 90 feet from the Hilan.

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He also claims the "pedestrian route" still would be less than 300 feet — if the Hilan's owner, Jeff Notrica, hadn't constructed a hallway through which patrons must "zig-zag" to get to the theater's door. "It's so obviously an artifice to try to get around the distance requirement," Weintraub alleges.

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He says the civic association opposes the theater due to the vehicle traffic and noise that are likely to accompany it.

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Notrica and his attorney, Michael Sard, declined comment.

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Sard, however, is well-acquainted with the acrimony of sophisticated neighborhood associations. In 1993, he represented the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group in a successful battle against the Buckhead Neighborhood Alliance — and paved the way for a now-iconic 65-foot copper fish to be erected atop the Atlanta Fish Market on Pharr Road.

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The License & Review Board is scheduled to vote on the Hilan Theatre's liquor license application on Tues., Aug. 15, at 5 p.m., in committee room No. 2 of Atlanta City Hall, 55 Trinity Ave. The meeting is open to the public.



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