CB3 Debates Proposed Changes in Liquor Licensing Policies

CB3 solicited feedback from community members over the summer.

For the past few months, Community Board 3 has been weighing changes to its liquor licensing policies. During two public hearings, residents, community board members and a few bar owners spoke out about what ails CB3’s SLA Committee. Last night, a planner working with the community board presented a draft report, detailing suggested modifications in the way the panel does business.

The report covered several key issues — including streamlining procedures for applicants, clarifying the criteria used for evaluating license requests and deciding whether bar owners have an automatic right to transfer their licenses to another operator.

Most board members in attendance seemed to agree there’s a need to redefine so-called “resolution areas,” specific blocks in which new liquor licenses are restricted due to an over-saturation of bars and clubs.  The report recommended establishing new “high density” zones — using objective criteria like 311 complaints, zoning laws, the number of licensed establishments, etc.

There might be different classifications — possibly even a scoring system – to separate the most over-burdened blocks from those that are not quite as overwhelmed with late night noise and crowds. One issue to be worked out: whether the board can find the resources to evaluate each block in the sprawling community district (which includes the East Village, the LES and Chinatown).

At one time, CB3 simply rejected any operator applying for a license in a resolution area. But after consultations with the State Liquor Authority, the board changed its policy, agreeing to approve requests from applicants who proved “a public benefit” to opening their restaurants in the community.  This approach has also been problematic, since there’s no clear definition of what constitutes a public benefit.

The report suggests establishing specific guidelines, including a requirement that the “majority of the business provides a (unique) good or service in need by the community,” that the establishment provides a “cultural benefit,” or that the business adds to the retail diversity of the neighborhood.

This proposal was more controversial. CB3 member Meghan Joye, a bar owner, said applicants routinely “b.s. the committee,” promising all sorts of bogus benefits that either never materialize or are not exactly unique (hanging art on the walls, for example).  She was concerned that the new proposal would create an impossibly high standard. Another member, Mary Spink, said she was worried about what happens when a bar changes owners. How does the community board make sure the public benefit doesn’t fall by the wayside when a establishment changes hands?, she asked.

The most difficult issue concerned transfer licenses, a topic that has sharply divided the SLA Committee. One member, bar owner David McWater, has passionately argued that the board should approve transfers from one owner to another almost automatically.  There’s a widespread perception that treating transfers in this way is CB3’s policy.  Last night, CB3 District Manager Susan Stetzer said, “we have created something that exists nowhere else. There is no precedent.” The report noted that every other community board (except one) treats transfers as  new license requests. CB3, it suggested, should also consider transfers to be new applications.

McWater was not present last night, but Joye said she agreed that operators should have the right to sell their licenses, so long as they have been responsible business owners.  If prospective owners can’t be assured the community board will support the continued operation of establishments, she argued, their businesses would be very difficult to sell.  This, she said, would be unfair to owners who have devoted their lives to running bars and restaurants in the community.

But SLA Committee Chair Alex Militano said new owners very often change an establishment’s “method of operation” once they’re in charge.  Joye acknowledged this phenomenon, saying the board has been too lax with new owners in this regard.

Another board member, David Crane, suggested there’s a more fundamental problem. It must be acknowledged, he said, that bars change the character of neighborhoods. Over time, he indicated, CB3 should have the ability to re-evaluate whether establishments are appropriate for the community. In the end, there was no resolution, but the board seemed to be heading for a compromise in which some “grandfathering” of transfer licenses is allowed, but only when establishments have operated problem-free bars with few complaints.

CB3 Chair Dominic Pisciotta said the board would look over a revised draft proposal next month, before voting on policy changes.  Copies of the report were available at last night’s meeting but community members were not allowed to keep them — and the recommendations are not yet online. We will post the proposed changes when CB3 makes them available.