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Encinitas adopts regulations to temper impacts of late-night drinking

Bar and restaurant group presents plan at meeting, “secret shoppers” and private security patrols are some of the actions already taken 

ENCINITAS — Councilmembers unanimously passed several pieces of legislation at Wednesday night’s meeting to address what some residents say has become an unruly bar scene in the downtown area.

Council also voted to consider stricter performance measures for all alcohol-serving bars and restaurants at a later date.

Previously, the city’s planning director had the power to OK minor-use permits for new alcohol-serving establishments, but no longer. As a result of the City Council vote, the Planning Commission must approve all permits for all new bars and restaurants.

Because the commission’s meetings are public, residents will have a greater chance to weigh in on applications.

Following another councilmember vote, businesses applying for a permit to sell alcohol will have to complete an operational management plan. The management plan must contain information about occupancy limits, strategies for noise mitigation and other details as a condition for the permit.

Failure to comply with the management plan would result in “enforceable actions,” according to the city’s staff report.

And due to a 3-2 vote, with councilmembers Mark Muir and Kristin Gaspar opposed, city staff members will develop what’s known as a deemed-approved ordinance for later consideration.

Bars and restaurants that obtained liquor licenses prior to the city’s requirement for a use permit face fewer restrictions. The inability to regulate grandfathered establishments has prompted cities to turn to a deemed-approved program.

A deemed-approved ordinance would place tighter rules on both new and old alcohol-serving businesses by establishing performance standards.

A business that violates the standards would have to go through a hearing process with the city.

If the violations continue, a public hearing would be scheduled, and in extreme cases the business would be forced to close. This week, El Cajon became the 21st California city to adopt a deemed-approved ordinance. City Planning Director Jeff Murphy said it took El Cajon nine months to draft its ordinance.

Gaspar said developing the ordinance demands pulling staff off of other projects that are a priority right now, including updating the city’s housing element.

Gaspar also said she’s pleased by the progress of the Encinitas Hospitality Association, a new nonprofit made up of 28 bar and restaurant owners. The association outlined its accomplishments thus far and its goals for the future in a presentation at the meeting.

Proposing tougher regulations like a deemed-approved ordinance would make the association less inclined to work with the city, Gaspar said.

“Right now, in the Encinitas Hospitality Association, we certainly have a partner,” Gaspar said. “And I do want to commend them for coming together in a very short period of time.”

But Deputy Mayor Lisa Shaffer said the ordinance goes “hand-in-hand” with the association’s purpose.

“If EHA members do what they say they’re going to do, a deemed-approved ordinance protects them from the bad apples that might not be following the guidelines that EHA has developed,” Shaffer said.

The deemed-approved ordinance will be brought before the City Council at an undetermined date.

Last month, the City Council gave the association 45 days to come up with a plan of action.

Danielle Yee, spokeswoman for the association, said the group has worked to assuage residents’ concerns over late-night drinking.

Listing some of the actions they’ve taken, she said the group held its first public meeting, launched a forum on its website for residents to relay concerns and created a “secret shopper” program for inspectors to make recommendations on how bars can improve security.

Yee also noted the association contracted with a private security firm that patrols downtown in a car on weekends from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m.

During a break in the City Council meeting, she elaborated that the patrols keep an eye out for public drunkenness and other illegal behavior from J Street to C Street along Coast Highway 101. Yet the patrol vehicle will likely expand its route in the coming weeks to deal with complaints outside that area.

Security guards that are part of the firm can’t arrest people or issue citations. They remind people to be quiet and contact the Sheriff’s Department when necessary, she said.

Many businesses within the association are chipping in to fund the security firm, with the bars open latest and nearest to the patrol area paying the most, Yee noted.

Yee believes the efforts have paid off; a resident emailed the association noting she’s slept better recently thanks to what it’s done.

Council members largely said they liked what they’ve seen from the group so far. But they worried about the association’s staying power. And they said the group needs to come up with concrete benchmarks for measuring its success in the future.

Resident Shirley Finch said the association is encouraging, but its plan is mainly talk at this point.

She urged the City Council to adopt a deemed-approved ordinance to hold bar and restaurant owners’ “feet to the fire.”

The association will present to City Council again, but a date wasn’t set.

As well as the other motions that passed, the city directed staff to bring back an analysis on restricting so-called party buses.