Reflections On Liquor Licensing Forum

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I attended the Liquor Licensing Public Forum on June 29th at the Portland Building. The forum was comprised of a panel of folks from the OLCC and various city departments, taking questions from the audience about liquor licensing issues. As you might imagine, it was a rather fiesty event. Though the number of attendees was not large (in the range of 20-30), many in the crowd were quite vocal. There were a few people there who had clearly expended a fair amount of time and energy dealing with licensing issues in their neighborhood. It seemed to be the consensus among these people that the OLCC was effectively (as one attendee put it) a “rubber stamp regime”. The response the came back from the stage was that the OLCC are regulators, and in most cases, their hands are tied by the laws against which they must regulate. They urged citizens to talk to their legislators if they feel there are holes in the statutes.

For example, one of the big topics of conversation was saturation; e.g., licenses being given out for a preponderance of establishments in a relatively small area. There were several folks there from Hayden Island for whom this was a particularly hot topic. They claim that, on an island with a population of 2200 people, there are currently 22 bars. The OLCC’s response was that, while the statutes did once include a saturation clause, that was taken out some time ago. The OLCC can now not take this sort of thing into account when deciding on licenses. The representatives from the OLCC urged people to take this issue up with their legislators. Their message was, “help give us the tools to fight on your behalf”.

However, many in the crowd seemed to feel that the OLCC actually has more leeway and discretion than was being communicated. Some expressed frustration at the apparent disconnect between the OLCC’s own mission statement – which talks about protecting things like “neighborhood livability” – and what sorts of things the OLCC is willing/able to regulate.

I was somewhat surprised by the level of frustration and passion I saw on display last night, which went beyond anything I’ve personally encountered in my two years trying to fill the role of Liquor Committee. It occurred to me that one of the difficult things about these kinds of issues is that, in some cases, the people fighting them must feel really alone. For example, there was a young couple there that own a house next to a bar with an outdoor patio. They’ve lived next to the bar for about 7 years, but the patio is a more recent development (about 2 years ago). They received no notice that the bar had filed for an Extension of Premises on their license; their first notice was when construction started on the patio. Since then, they’ve been fighting to do something about it, and have gone as far as to retain a lawyer. Their frustration was evident; in the meantime, people living a block away may feel little or no impact from the situation.

The evening made me think about the role of neighborhood association Liquor Committee. It’s never been entirely clear to me what neighborhood associations can do to best address or head off situations like the kind that were brought up last night…..

Eric O’Connor

BCA Board Member

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