As community advocate Joeann Valle wrote her first letter of protest to a government agency almost two years ago, she had visions of people pulling their cars in front of a local store's drive-up window and ordering a roll of film, three photo enlargements--and 12 cold cans of Coors.
"I couldn't believe that Photo Hut would want to open a liquor business," Valle said. "I could see people ordering their 110 film and their photo developing, and then saying, 'By the way, I'll have two packs of beer while you're at it.' That's convenience, but that's also a detriment to the community."
Photo Hut's application for a liquor license almost two years ago brought the first of about six protests Valle and other Harbor City residents have waged against new liquor stores in this Los Angeles community of 20,000, where some say such establishments are becoming as numerous as churches and gas stations.
Harbor City residents say they are pleased with the occasional success of their protests--which, for example, helped prevent Photo Hut from selling liquor. But many say one of their most significant gains came in last week's 13-0 Los Angeles City Council passage of an strict ordinance governing new liquor operations.
The new ordinance, signed into law Thursday by Mayor Tom Bradley, requires anyone who wants to sell liquor in Los Angeles to obtain a conditional-use permit. Public hearings and notification of property owners within 300 feet of the liquor outlet are required for approval of the permit.
When public concerns are raised about a liquor business, city officials then have the opportunity to impose specific requirements on a liquor operation or, if necessary, deny an application.
In South-Central Los Angeles, where a similar ordinance specifically for that area has been in effect since April, about half of the proposed liquor businesses have been turned down during this application process, according to Arch Crouch, chief examiner for the Planning Commission.
"This is the most profitable thing that's come out of our protests of off-site liquor sales," said Valle, president of the Harbor City Coordinating Council, which sent letters in support of the ordinance to Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who represents the Harbor area.
"Many of the community support groups like us all over Los Angeles let their voices be heard on this one," Valle said. "It's really important to our communities. Before, people didn't know what was going on until a liquor store went up--and then what kind of voice did they really have?"
While the Harbor City group may not have had as much control in the past over the liquor stores in their community, Flores said, the residents have contributed to her support of the new city ordinance. (Although Flores supported the ordinance, she said she was unable to vote on it because she was unable to attend the meeting.)
"Selling liquor from a Photo Hut is going a little too far; the people in Harbor City have pointed out the need for more specific rules," Flores said. She quipped, "Having your schnapps with your snaps is a little too much."
Since 1977, Los Angeles has required conditional-use permits for businesses that serve alcoholic beverages. But until now, only the state Department of Alcohol Beverage Control has regulated stores that sell such beverages.
The state requires a prospective liquor store owner to notify nearby residents and post a liquor license application at his prospective business location. Public hearings, however, are mandated only if an application is protested. Harbor City residents say that they often had no way of knowing about an application until it was too late.
With the new Los Angeles law, the state will not license any liquor establishment unless it has already been approved by the city.
"I am pleased with the city ordinance," said Harbor City resident Jack Short, also a member of the coordinating council. "It's not really stopping the stores; it's just putting more control on them. That's what the coordinating council has been trying to do."
Billie Lee, a Harbor City resident for 11 years, explained, "At least we'll have the chance now to tell the city how we feel about these liquor stores. I think we have enough of them in this area, especially with all the schools so close. I can't see why we need another one."
While the Harbor City residents hail the new law, they have also been effective in apprising state officials of their concerns under state procedures. Most recently, the group opposed an application for a Convenient Mart at Western Avenue and Sepulveda Boulevard.
Although that state license was approved, the group helped force the inclusion of conditions that will regulate the store's business hours, size of alcohol containers and advertising practices.
"I'd say they are very influential in our decisions," said Phil Henry, supervising special investigator for the Long Beach branch of the state agency. "Their main instrument of effectiveness has been the filing of protests so that they get to give testimony in an administrative-law hearing. I'd say they have had a lot of input, which, by and large, has been very welcome."
Many Harbor City residents have opposed local liquor stores because they contend that some of these businesses contribute to neighborhood crime and juvenile delinquency.
Near High School
Valle, who has coordinated the group's liquor protest efforts, said, "We have had problems at several stores in Harbor City, like Silver Skates liquor store. It's very close to Narbonne High School, and there are people drinking in the parking lot and being obnoxious to the kids who pass by. There is not even a sign there that tells people not to drink on the premises."
Silver Skates owner Sunkyu Oh, however, disputes those claims, saying that he runs a clean operation.
"In the 10 years that I operated this business, I haven't had any problems," Oh said. "People (from neighboring industries) stop by and buy beer or a soda but they go away right away. I'm proud of myself in the way I handle my business."
Although the new laws do not provide them any control over existing businesses, some residents say they will register their complaints with store owners. They also said that the new law will not cause them to let down their guard.
"We'll continue to be on the watch for these things," resident George Becker said. "We're beginning to see a number of mini malls in the Harbor City area, and it seems each one includes a request for a liquor store permit. . . . I think this is something where eternal vigilance is necessary."