Zoning Attack Launched on Sale of Liquor at Gas Stations

Times Staff Writer

After a string of legislative and court defeats that have prevented the Glendale City Council from banning the sale of liquor from gas stations, the council moved Tuesday to subject such sales to strict zoning regulations.

On Tuesday, the council introduced an emergency ordinance requiring conditional-use permits for all businesses that sell both alcohol and gasoline.

Under the proposed ordinance, the estimated seven gas stations that already sell liquor would have 6 months to obtain a conditional-use permit or stop selling both products.

The council will vote on the ordinance following a public hearing Tuesday.


To obtain conditional-use permits under the ordinance, applicants would have to go through a public hearing process to establish that their businesses are not detrimental to the neighborhood’s public safety, general welfare or the environment.

The outlets would also have to meet the city’s already strict zoning requirements for gas stations. Among those are provisions requiring that all utility services be installed underground, that gas pumps be no less than 15 feet from the street and that landscaping guidelines be met.

City Planning Director John McKenna said he is not sure whether the gas stations that sell liquor are already complying with the city regulations.

The ordinance also incorporates the “minimum state standards” of the California Business and Professions Code into the permit’s requirements.

3-Year Battle

The attempt to impose new regulations on already existing gas station/mini-marts is the latest round in a 3-year legal and political battle between the city and the liquor and gasoline industries. In the process, both sides have taken their case to the state Legislature and the state Supreme Court.

City Atty. Frank R. Manzano said the city intends to enforce the ordinance on Glendale’s gas stations that continue to sell liquor. But the attorney for one mini-mart owner, Charles Mussalli, said the city cannot enforce new regulations on businesses already operating under previously approved standards.

“The Court of Appeal has already ruled that the grandfather clause protects my client,” attorney Robin D. Wiener said. In 1987, the state Court of Appeal decision ruled that the city’s 1986 blanket ban of liquor sales from gas stations did not apply to Mussalli’s business.

Wiener said she will advise her client to challenge the ordinance in court unless complying with the new regulations proves to be cheaper and less troublesome.

There are no absolute standards to measure the impact of gas and liquor stores on a neighborhood’s public welfare, safety or environment, McKenna said, so planning commissioners will have to use their best judgment in evaluating each application.

‘All Facets of Information’

“We will rely on all facets of information that come to us,” McKenna said, “including studies by public agencies, industry studies submitted by the applicants, the testimony of neighbors and testimonies by experts either requested by the zoning commissioner or submitted by the applicants.”

City officials said they would not use the power to deny conditional-use permits indiscriminately, but only the City Council members know how far they would go to turn applicants away.

“There may very well be some places where we can’t come up with a legitimate reason to negate a permit,” City Councilman Jerold Milner said. “On the other hand, getting a permit in the city of Glendale won’t be a free ride. I don’t think you should ever be allowed to sell alcohol and gasoline in the same place.”

Conditional-use permits are granted by city planning commissioners, but all decisions can be appealed to the City Council.

Glendale’s elected leaders first took issue with gas station/mini-marts in early 1986 when two gas stations, both within a block of an elementary school, proposed selling wine and beer.

Responding to complaints by local residents, on April 29, 1986, the City Council adopted an ordinance banning the sale of alcoholic beverages at gas stations.

But while other California cities that adopted similar bans allowed existing businesses to continue dual sales, Glendale ordered the outlets selling beer and liquor within the city limits to stop by May, 1987.

Only days before the ban was to go into effect, the city suffered its first setback. Superior Court judges in Burbank and Los Angeles ruled in separate cases that the retroactive aspect of the ban was unconstitutional.

The Los Angeles suit was filed by Mussalli, and the Burbank suit was filed jointly by the Southland Corp., which runs 7-Eleven stores; the Wortman Oil Co. and FFREE, a Sacramento-based industry lobby group.

Since Glendale officials were ordered not to impose the ban on three gas station/mini-marts protected by the lawsuits against the city, the city attorney’s office decided to hold off on enforcing the ban against the other four locations.

Ban Outlawed

Two months later, the Legislature dealt the city another blow by enacting a law that forbids local governments from banning the sales of gas and liquor from a single outlet.

The law wiped off the books at least 30 local bans enacted by cities after Aug. 1, 1985. Ordinances in Fountain Valley, Orange and Seal Beach were allowed to stand because they were adopted before the cutoff date. But the Glendale ban, as well as all others adopted between Aug. 1, 1985, and May 5, 1987, were declared ineffective as of Jan. 1, 1989.

The state law, however, allows local governments to enforce zoning laws restricting the sale of alcohol at gas stations by requiring conditional-use permits to screen applicants on a case-by-case basis.

Billed by its supporters as a compromise that protects both the industry and cities, the law was backed by the powerful gasoline and liquor industry lobbies and by the League of California Cities.

But Glendale officials lobbied against the law and still criticize it, claiming that it interferes with the principle of “home rule” and promotes drunk driving.

The principle of home rule, or a community’s right to govern itself, is often cited by city officials as the basis for regulating businesses through zoning standards.

“I think it’s incongruous and ridiculous to spend the city’s money in trying to prevent drunk driving and then turn around and let people sell gasoline and liquor. . . ,” Milner said. “But the state law only leaves us the very minimal possibility of regulating” such sales.

Spokesmen for the stores and gas stations, however, said studies paid for by their industry show that the sale of alcohol and gas in a single location is not a major contributor to the problem of drunk driving. Bars, restaurants and private parties put more drunks behind the steering wheel, they said.

In April, 1988, the city appealed the two court rulings against the ban, but in September, the Court of Appeal upheld the Mussalli ruling.

Hearing of Appeal Denied

The city appealed again, but in a Dec. 14 decision, the state Supreme Court refused to hear the case. Senior Assistant City Atty. Scott H. Howard said that since then, the city has not followed through on its appeal of the Burbank court decision.

Meanwhile, immediately after the passage of the state law, the city Planning Commission began drafting the ordinance that, with minor modifications, was introduced to the City Council for the second time Tuesday.

The proposed ordinance was written in September, 1987, public records show, but the City Council decided against introducing it before the resolution of the court cases, which would ultimately decide whether the city had the legal power to enforce its ban.

In September, the ordinance was finally introduced, but once again the council decided to wait, this time for the appeals court decision. “The adoption of this ordinance would void the city’s pending appeals,” Councilman John F. Day argued in his motion to table the ordinance.

By the time the Supreme Court decided not to hear the city’s case, the City Council was running out of time--the ban was to be nullified Jan. 1, leaving the city without an ordinance regulating sales of liquor by gas stations.

At the Dec. 27 City Council meeting, Councilwoman Ginger Bemberg urged her colleagues to adopt the ordinance on an emergency basis.

However, with Day and Councilman Larry Zarian on leave for the holiday season, the council did not have the necessary votes to pass the emergency ordinance, which, under Glendale’s city charter, requires four votes.

The ordinance was finally reintroduced this week, but the council will not vote on it or hold a public hearing until Tuesday, when all council members are expected to be present.

Howard said the 10-day period between the ban’s expiration and the adoption of the new ordinance allows merchants to apply for liquor licenses free of regulations. But so far, no applications have been turned in, he said, adding that the California Alcohol and Beverage Commission takes months to process license applications.

Greedy Businessmen Cited

Some City Council members believe that in regulating the alcohol-selling gas stations, they are protecting neighborhoods from unscrupulous merchants. Milner recently portrayed the city’s dispute with the gas stations that sell liquor as a battle between the people and greedy businessmen.

But some people living next to one gas station that sells liquor indicated that they were not offended by the arrangement.

“Every time I pump gas into my car, I go” inside the mini-mart “and buy beer,” said restaurant cook Eduardo Lopez, 37, whose apartment is adjacent to an Arco station on Colorado Street and Verdugo Road.

“Besides, the bar is just across the street, so if you wanna drink, you’re gonna drink,” Lopez said.

“I’m not bothered at all by the sale of alcohol at the gas station,” said Lopez’s next-door neighbor and fellow cook, Victor Vela, 33. “It’s the gas station’s business, and it doesn’t bother me.”

Yet other neighbors--including a night-shift attendant at the Arco station--are quick to applaud the city’s efforts to limit liquor sales at gas stations.

“I think it’s a very good idea. At night, people drive in and out of the gas station like maniacs--a lot of weird-looking characters, typical of all mini-markets,” said Rita Doss, 32, a neighbor who works at a local hospital.

Sales Said to Rise at Night

As for the gas station attendant, he said the station did not sell much alcohol during the day, but that sales at the 24-hour station picked up after dark when most liquor stores and supermarkets close their doors for the night.

“A lot of people come in here drunk and give me a hard time,” he said. “A lot of them live nearby and buy beer five or six times a day. I don’t think that’s good because sometimes they drink and drive, especially on weekends.”

The owner of another gas station that sells beer and wine offered a completely different perspective. “I never had a single problem or a single complaint,” said George Saad, whose Mobil station is at Colorado Street and Glendale Avenue.

When asked about the proposed regulations, Saad replied: “I will do whatever the lawyers tell me.”