Last week we reported about Senator Daniel Squadron’s bill meant to “strengthen and clarify the factors considered by the State Liquor Authority when reviewing liquor license applications.” Today, he responded to concerns about that legislation expressed by a neighborhood activist. We’ll get to the criticism of the bill in a moment. First an explanation of the current law — and what the Senator is proposing…
The bill addresses a section of New York’s Alcohol Beverage Control Law known as the “500 foot rule.” In theory, it is supposed to restrict the opening of a bar or restaurant serving alcohol if there are already three other establishments serving liquor within 500 feet. The law allows the State Liquor Authority to make exceptions to the rule if it’s in the “public interest.” As currently written, the law says the SLA “may consider… any or all” of the following:
- The number and type of licenses already existing in the area
- Whether the applicant has obtained all of the necessary government permits
- The impact on automobile traffic and parking
- The impact on the noise level
- The applicant’s violation history and any criminal history
- “Any other factors specified by law or regulation that are relevant to determine the public convenience and advantage and public interest of the community and necessary to find that the granting of such license shall be in the public interest.”
Squadron’s bill would change the language in the law to say the “authority shall consider all of “these factors “in determining whether public convenience and advantage and the public interest will be promoted by the granting of a license.” It also adds two additional factors:
- The history of building and fire violations at any businesses owned and/or operated by the applicant
- The history of community board opinions and decisions (regarding businesses owned/operated by the applicant)
Now to the concerns spelled out by East Village resident Rob Hollander on his blog, Save the Lower East Side. He pointed out that the Squadron revision deletes the three words indicating that the SLA may consider any other laws relevant to determining the public interest “of the community.” Without this phrase, Hollander writes…
“the public interest would include, for example, state revenue from liquor, or commerce generally beyond the community’s local benefit… Deleting those… words allows a revenue-starved government to bypass community concerns. And once a bar strip is installed, it doesn’t disappear when the recession ends and the government no longer needs its revenue. The strip remains, displacing local commercial diversity, local services and community character.
In a letter to Hollander, Squadron responded, “I strongly disagree with your interpretation that the bill weakens community input.” Squadron said the omission of those words makes the “public interest” clause consistent with the rest of the law. He added that “community” is not defined as a neighborhood resident, as Hollander’s post suggested. “The phrase ‘public interest’ is consistently used in the laws that define the opinions of communities and community boards,” he said.
Hollander also has another concern — that the bill does not clearly define the ambiguous phrase, “public interest:”
Almost anything might be in the public interest… bars argue that the jobs they create are in the public interest. Even more pertinently for the State, the SLA might find that the license renewal fee itself might be in the public interest since that money goes to the government, and the government by definition is, of course, the public interest. It is impracticable to list every instance of public interest relative to each context. In a depressed neighborhood, jobs might be in the public interest. But in a blue-collar family neighborhood near local workplaces, nightlife might not be the optimal replacement for those local workplaces.
That’s Hollander’s take on the legislation. How about the community board? CB3 has not weighed in with an official position on the bill. However, District Manager Susan Stetzer, who’s on the front lines dealing with licensing issues, told us the following:
Senator Squadron’s new bill has much stronger language regarding consideration of public interest. However, I am not sure if it will impact decisions. If you go back in SLA history, when Senator (Frank) Padavan introduced the 500-foot rule (in 1993), the intention was clearly that the standard would be not to approve licenses if there were 3 or more full licenses within 500 feet. However, until about 2005, 500-foot hearings were held as required by law, but the decisions did not follow the intent of the law. It is also stronger because it asks for evidence of permits and licenses. I believe the SLA is already doing this—but this will make sure it happens under all administrations. It also asks for the history of building and fire violations and history of community board decisions regarding the applicant. So, it is really quite a bit stronger.
In his letter to Hollander, Squadron wrote, “this bill does not completely reform the SLA or the community process in licensing. However it does improve, clarify and strengthen the factors that must be considered by the SLA in the licensing of bars and restaurants.”
The bottom line seems to be this. Defining the term “public interest” in a very specific way could be a slippery slope both politically and legally. It’s hard to imagine any two people, let alone the fractious State Legislature, coming to an agreement on what benefits “the community.” At least some community activists give Squadron credit for tackling the problem. At the same time, there are people who want to make sure any new law compels the SLA to abide by community concerns. Many observers doubt such a law could make it through Albany or stand up in a court of law.
The bill passed the Senate 59-0. It is now being considered by the Assembly.