Bar Wars : 2 Veterans Groups Fight to Serve Liquor


Sharon Olsen and some of her neighbors on Piedmont and Manhattan avenues in La Crescenta want a safe future. Their goal is to keep drunk drivers out of their tranquil neighborhood and away from their children.

Patricia and Marvin Weber and other nearby residents want to preserve the past. Their goal is to boost the membership and finances of two veterans organizations that may be near extinction.

Since early last year, the groups have battled over whether American Legion Post 288 and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1614 should be allowed to open a joint private bar at the legion's Verdugo Hills Memorial Hall at 4011 La Crescenta Ave.

A legal decision on the issue is expected Monday. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge is scheduled to rule on whether the Glendale City Council in December incorrectly approved a zoning variance allowing the veterans groups to open the bar.

Even if the court upholds the variance, the veterans groups face another obstacle. They still need state Alcohol and Beverage Control approval. ABC officials said this week that they will deny the permit.

"I doubt if I will even consider a one-day permit there anymore," said Jim Smith, a district administrator in the ABC's Van Nuys office. "If we did issue them in the past, we apparently were not aware of any problems they may have caused. . . . But now I'm obliged to be sensitive to the community's concerns."

If the zoning variance is upheld, the veterans can appeal the ABC's permit denial before a Los Angeles administrative court judge, Smith said. Generally, the ABC abides by the court's ruling in appeals.

The Monday zoning ruling will follow a hearing on a lawsuit filed against the council by Olsen, who lives down the street from the hall. She and other residents, who are represented by former City Atty. Frank Manzano, claim that their children will be endangered by veterans who drink and drive.

The residents also charge that such a club would cause parking and traffic problems and lower property values in the area.

Members of the veterans groups, with a total membership of about 330, say that to survive, they need to combine resources at one facility and open the private bar to attract patrons and raise money.

This week, the two sides clashed at a meeting called by Olsen and her supporters to rally the neighborhood into backing the lawsuit and donating money to help cover legal fees.

Olsen told 24 residents who met in the Foursquare Church next door to the hall that she and others believe that a bar would threaten about 60 children under 12 who frequently play on Piedmont and Manhattan avenues.

"This has become a fight with the city over principles," Olsen said Monday during the hourlong meeting. "We need to stand up and say a bar is not what we want in our neighborhood."

She asked her neighbors to donate at least $25 apiece to help cover the fees associated with the lawsuit, noting that supporters have already given several thousand dollars.

Five men and women, all members of the VFW who live nearby, listened to speeches by Olsen and several others, then quietly filed out. Outside the church, they said they were shocked and angered by the residents' claims that the veterans club would threaten the neighborhood.

"The average age of a veteran is 65," said Patricia Weber, a La Crescenta Avenue resident who with her husband, Marvin, belongs to the VFW. "These aren't hot-rodders. This is an old group and a poor group. And for some people . . . this is their only social activity."

The bar would be open only to members and their guests and would be closely supervised, said Courtney Davis, another VFW member and nearby resident. Without it, the groups' membership and finances will decrease, he said.

"Separately, we're going down the drain," Davis said. "Without the merger of the two, both of us are going to be extinct."

The American Legion post has occupied the hall since 1934, but the group is not licensed to sell alcohol. The VFW post, facing a dwindling membership and escalating rent, wants to move from a rented commercial building on nearby Honolulu Avenue into the legion hall and bring its liquor license along.

The hall has been operating as a "legal nonconforming" facility since 1952, when the area was zoned by Glendale for housing. Legion and VFW members have served drinks for free at some social events, and they and other private groups have obtained one-day permits from ABC for other events at the hall, members said.

The lawsuit is the latest in a string of challenges posed by Olsen and her neighbors to block a permanent bar.

The posts asked the city in February, 1990, for permission to open the bar. In April, Glendale Zoning Administrator Kathleen Marcus approved a variance, but the decision was appealed by Olsen and other neighbors to the Board of Zoning Adjustments. In September, the board upheld Marcus' decision.

Olsen appealed the matter to the City Council, which in December voted 4 to 1 to approve the variance, with Councilman Larry Zarian dissenting. Two months later, she filed the lawsuit.

The suit charges that the council violated zoning laws by voting to allow veterans to expand the use of their hall with a bar. An ordinance prohibits the expansion of a facility already deemed to be nonconforming to zoning of the surrounding area, Manzano said.

City Atty. Scott Howard said this week that he will argue that although facilities deemed legal but nonconforming generally cannot expand their activities, they can apply for zoning variances to do so.

"The building's existence as is has been there for a long, long time, and its expansion is very minimal," Howard said.

An attorney for the veterans groups could not be reached for comment.

The City Council attached 21 conditions to its approval of the variance, including installing walls to separate the hall's parking lot from the neighborhood, maintaining an alcohol abuse education program and posting signs concerning drunk-driving laws.

The veterans would have to limit the canteen's hours to 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 2 to 6 p.m. Sundays.

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