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Council votes against new permit system for bars

ENCINITAS — The city should step up code enforcement checks on bars, rather than adopt a new permit system for alcohol-serving establishments, a council majority said on Wednesday night.

The council voted unanimously in favor of hiring a new code enforcement officer to proactively patrol bars and enforce the rules on the books.

But councilmembers voted 3-2 against what’s known as a deemed-approved ordinance. The measure would have required all bars open after 10 p.m. to meet tougher noise and trash standards.

Councilman Tony Kranz said the council should wait to see if proactive enforcement addresses late-night alcohol problems, adding the city hasn’t dedicated enough resources to enforcing existing regulations.

“In being consistent with my desire to handle this issue incrementally, I want stepped up enforcement before we enact a deemed-approved ordinance,” Kranz said.

But Mayor Teresa Barth said the ordinance would go hand-in-hand with additional enforcement.

She stated without an ordinance in place, the city risks bars getting out of hand and dragging property values down, which is what happened in Manhattan Beach, Calif.

“We have an opportunity right now in Encinitas not to go down that path, but to maintain the quality of life citywide,” Barth said.

Currently, bars that acquired a liquor license 20 years ago face fewer regulations than new establishments. But the ordinance proposed to level the playing field with a stricter permit system for all late-night bars.

It also would have put a new complaint system in place.

Once a complaint is filed, according to the ordinance, a code enforcement officer or Sheriff’s Deputy would investigate a matter. Clear evidence would have to demonstrate a bar is responsible for a violation like trash.

If culpable, a business would first receive a warning, and then a fine if another legitimate complaint is filed within 12 months. Finally, there would be a hearing before an administrative officer if problems continue.

From that point, bars that don’t comply could lose their liquor license, the ordinance states.

Councilwoman Kristin Gaspar was concerned the ordinance would allow residents to level false complaints against bars they don’t like.

“These businesses are already on high alert,” Gaspar said.

Deputy Mayor Mark Muir noted the city recently passed an operational management plan to prevent restaurants from “morphing” into late-night bars.

That seemed to address late-night issues — one reason an ordinance is unnecessary at this time, he said.

Under the management plan, businesses applying for a new liquor license have to put together noise and other mitigation strategies as a condition of their permit.

More than 140 alcohol-related complaints have been filed with the city over the past five years, according the city staff report. And the Sheriff’s Department received 67 calls for service to bars during that time.

City Planning Director Jeff Murphy said based on public testimony, most who are frustrated with rowdy nightlife aren’t calling in to report problems.

To better track and address intoxication issues, the city plans on creating a single-point of contact — a phone number and website — for residents, Murphy said.

The city’s new full-time code enforcement officer will replace a vacant part-time position. The cost of increasing a position from part time to full time couldn’t be obtained by press time. It will be paid for by finding cost savings in the budget, instead of new money.

Resident Shirley Finch said many believe the city hasn’t done enough to fix alcohol problems, but an ordinance represented a chance to turn that perception around.