ENCINITAS — Next month, the City Council will vote on a moratorium on new liquor licenses and other restrictions aimed at curbing late-night drinking.
Council voted unanimously at Wednesday night’s meeting to place those items on a July agenda. The action drew loud applause from residents that maintain the downtown bar scene is getting out of control.
“We owe the public this effort to show that we’re taking them seriously,” Mayor Teresa Barth said. “Otherwise, it sounds like we’re just trying to sweep it under the rug.”
Barth said the city needs a “timeout” while it’s figuring out the best way to address the bars. She clarified, however, that the direction taken at the meeting wasn’t the final say on the matter; there’s still a chance they could decide against a moratorium in July.
If adopted, a moratorium would take effect immediately and last for 45 days. At that time, City Council has the option of extending it for an additional 10 months. From there, councilmembers have the choice to continue the moratorium for an extra year, according to City Attorney Glenn Sabine.
Along with a freeze on new bars, pubs and breweries, City Council will consider prohibiting noisy “party buses” from idling near homes. It will also mull over changes to permitting that make it more challenging for businesses to obtain a new liquor license.
More than a year ago, a large group of residents gathered at a council meeting to decry the rise in downtown drinking. In response, the Downtown Encinitas Mainstreet Association facilitated six stakeholder meetings among residents, bars and law enforcement in search of solutions.
Based on feedback from the meetings and public, more Sheriff’s deputies were stationed downtown on Friday and Saturday nights over the past year. And more DUI checkpoints and drunk-in public sweeps were conducted, according to the city’s staff report.
Also, bar owners maintained noise and incident logs as well as posted signs to remind patrons to keep the noise down.
But nearly all of the 19 people who spoke at the meeting said that partying, reckless behavior and DUIs remain a problem in downtown.
Downtown bars that are open past 10 p.m. increased from four in 2007 to 10 currently. Resident Laurie Baum argued that’s led to a spike in crime. And she said the aftermath is visible while walking downtown in the morning. She’s found drug packages and spotted people passed out in their cars, for instance.
“We’d like the city to take action to reduce the amount of drinking going on, either if it’s limiting the hours of the bars or the numbers,” Baum said.
Some downtown bars don’t shut off the lights until 2 a.m.
Deputy Mayor Lisa Shaffer sympathized with residents who are frustrated by late-night bars.
“I don’t see any reason why bars need to be open past midnight,” Shaffer said.
Compared to three other North County cities, Sheriff’s Capt. Robert Haley said there were 564 DUIs in Encinitas in 2011. Solana Beach came in second with 49. And from 2008 to 2012, Sheriff’s deputies responded to 13 percent more service calls at Encinitas bars.
With more party buses rolling through downtown, some residents maintained the city is attracting a reputation as the next Pacific Beach — an area known for its slew of bars.
Mary Beckett, former member of the Pacific Beach planning group, said that residents are right to be concerned. She said Pacific Beach, like Encinitas, has a problem with restaurants acting like full-blown bars by serving more liquor than food.
To cut down on this, she said Encinitas restaurants wanting a liquor license should have to apply for a conditional use permit — a more lengthy review process with stricter conditions attached to it when compared with the type of permit required now.
Action must come from City Council because the Alcoholic Beverage Control board follows the city’s lead when it comes to restrictions on liquor licenses, she said.
Earlier in the meeting, city Planning Director Jeff Murphy said the permitting process is one tool for controlling the flow of liquor licenses.
As one example, department heads in the city currently approve liquor licenses. Instead, he proposed the licenses go to the city’s Planning Commission or to City Council for review.
Also, he said the city should consider legislative changes. For instance, the city could adopt new standards demanding more frequent check-ins from all bars — what’s called a “deemed approved status program.” As part of the program, public hearings would be held for bars that receive multiple complaints. But Murphy noted these rules could have drawbacks in the forms of added expenses.
Councilman Tony Kranz said he was surprised no bar owners spoke at the meeting.
A moratorium requires the thumbs up from four out of the five councilmembers to pass. The City Council will consider the moratorium and alcohol-related changes at either its July 10 or July 17 meeting.
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