Opinion - Changing how we drink

Happy hour and distance requirements are on the table in booze code rewrite

In the past five years, the City of Atlanta has revoked only half a dozen liquor licenses. Yes, you read that right: six — out of the nearly 2,000 bars, restaurants, package stores, nightclubs, brewpubs, lounges, and convention centers scattered generously throughout every neighborhood in the city.

If you ask community activists, that statistic is reason enough to warrant an overhaul of the city's alcohol code. Again.

In case you missed it, this past January the city kicked off a months-long effort to revise its confusing and outdated booze ordinance by convening a 16-member board of political, community, and industry appointees with the catchy name of Alcohol Technical Advisory Group II.

The "II" addendum stems from the fact that this is the second such rewrite in less than a decade. In the last go-around, in 2004, the Council dispensed with some clunky, archaic language in the expansive liquor code, added rules to accommodate the new brewpubs and craft brewers that were springing up around town, and formalized a process by which Neighborhood Planning Units could review license applications.

At that time, just months after the city had rolled back last call from 4 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. in a widely contentious move, few Council members had much appetite for more controversy.

And it may reassure you — or not, as the case may be — to know that Councilman Michael Bond, who's heading the current rewriting effort, has no plans to revisit the issue of bar hours.

Instead, what's on top of his to-do list is addressing the need to crack down on businesses that currently flout the existing laws. He hopes to have legislation ready to debate by the end of summer.

"From Bankhead to Buckhead, people are sick and tired with the lack of enforcement," he says. "It's my belief that enforcement should be stepped up across the board."

What kind of enforcement? For starters, making sure that license-holders police themselves on such quality-of-life concerns as the loitering, litter, and petty crime that often occur around convenience stores and liquor shops in sketchy neighborhoods. But there's the thornier problem of pouring establishments licensed as restaurants, which allows them to remain open on Sundays, but don't actually serve much food.

Bond also wants to revisit a section in the code that allows convenience stores to skirt distance requirements if less than 5 percent of their sales come from beer and wine. That loophole has resulted in a stretch of Simpson Road that runs through some of the city's poorest neighborhoods to boast more liquor licenses per square foot than anywhere else in Atlanta, with brown-bag cans of beer available on virtually every corner.

Then there are the places that operate effectively as nightclubs, but hold a less-costly restaurant license.

The city grappled with this issue earlier this year when determining whether to grant a license renewal to the Kirkwood Bar & Grill, a watering hole that neighbors claimed was pushing aside the tables and transforming into a noisy club in the evenings. In late January, Mayor Kasim Reed overruled the city's License Review Board in deciding to deny the restaurant's application, a move that could open the city to litigation, but which pleased nearby residents.

At the first in a series of monthly ATAG II public hearings, held Feb. 24 at City Hall, a stream of community activists took the microphone to demand greater accountability by bars and nightclubs for violence and crime that take place on their doorsteps.

That's a tough nut to crack, concedes Bond, who explains that the legal landscape shifted a few years back with the ruling in a lawsuit involving a collection of Marietta strip clubs that affirmed that a liquor license is not a privilege but a basic property right. That change has since been reflected by the attitude of the LRB, whose job is to make license recommendations to the mayor. Under the influence of hard-headed appointees Barney Simms and the late Peggy Harper, the previous board wasn't shy about voting to reject an application if neighborhood opposition was vocal enough. The current LRB, however, typically takes the stance that a license can only be denied for a compelling legal reason, such as a falsified application or a serious code violation.

It sounds as if Bond aims to find a middle ground to give neighborhoods more say in licensing without stepping on the rights of bar owners. Currently, the NPUs are invited to make recommendations about proposed bars or nightclubs, but those suggestions can be brushed aside by the LRB and the mayor.

Among the other changes Bond would like to see: streamlining the application process to save police man-hours; more regular audits to ensure that restaurant licensees meet their permit requirements; easing the distance requirements for boutique stores selling high-end liquors and wines; and cutting back on "grandfathering" for bars that no longer conform to the local zoning regulations.

And, lastly, there's talk of lifting the ban on "happy hour" drink discounts, a law that many people — including some bar owners — don't realize is in place because it's so widely broken. Apparently, the city is coming to grips with the reality that if you can't beat 'em, sell 'em a cocktail.

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