Corking the Bottle : Cities Try to Limit the Sale of Packaged Spirits

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Ofelia Hernandez steps onto her porch each evening to cool off, the first thing she sees is men swigging booze from bottles wrapped in brown paper bags.

The 37-year-old Huntington Park resident says the drinking is never-ending. As soon as one bottle has been polished off, the next is just steps away.

In fact, six stores sell alcohol in Hernandez's neighborhood. Her son, Eduardo, 8, has to walk past the stores--and the drinkers--on his way to Middleton Elementary School.

Hernandez's neighborhood is not unique. Liquor stores crowd many Southeast neighborhoods. In Huntington Park alone, 112 places sell booze, according to the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. That's one outlet for every 328 adults.

Communities have decided that too much is more than enough, citizens have begun protesting the number of liquor stores, and more and more city councils are denying permits to the establishments.

For five years, the number of outlets allowed to sell or serve beer, wine or other liquor in Southeast Los Angeles has steadily declined, according to ABC figures. The agency regulates alcohol permits throughout California.

In some cities, the effort has been deliberate. Three years ago, for example, Bell officials considered a proposal for a liquor outlet at Florence and Bear avenues, where alcohol was already available on three sides of the intersection.

Instead of approving the fourth store, the council enacted an ordinance that required 300 feet between each outlet, then denied the permit.

City Administrator John Bramble said that, since then, the council has taken "close and judicious looks" at all new permits. The number of stores in Bell has declined by almost 25% since 1986.

Officials in other cities where the number of outlets has fallen suggest that stores just went out of business due to increased competition from mini-markets.

But in some cities, outraged residents demanded action from City Hall.

"From a community standpoint, there is an uproar concerning these establishments," said Huntington Park Councilman Luis Hernandez (no relation to Ofelia Hernandez). "We have had enough of drunks throwing bottles and urinating on our lawns and abusing alcohol in our neighborhoods."

Ofelia Hernandez was one of the citizens who took her fight to City Hall when a new liquor store was proposed last March down the street from her home.

"We discovered that, if no one says anything, (the city) will go ahead and do whatever they want," said Ofelia Hernandez, who lobbied the Planning Commission until the permit was denied.

Earlier this month, Huntington Park went one step further and imposed a 45-day moratorium on new liquor licenses for stores that sell alcohol for consumption off the premises. As Bell did in 1989, the city will now compile a set of conditions for liquor stores and mini-markets seeking new permits.

Not everyone is pleased with the crackdown.

"I think this is very bad. People have to make a living," said Tony Sujin, who has owned a Huntington Park mini-market for 10 years. "I come from Thailand, and they tell me that if you come here to America, you are free to make a living. If a guy wants to do the right thing, he should be able to."

But South Gate City Manager Todd Argow said the intention is not to put anyone out of business, just to slowly reduce the numbers by not issuing new licenses or change-of-ownership permits on liquor stores.

So far, it seems to be working. In Lynwood, two requests to serve beer and wine in restaurants were denied at one City Council meeting.

In Compton, where no new liquor permits have been approved since a yearlong moratorium on such permits expired in April, the council has been discussing whether to reinstate the temporary ban or enact a permanent ordinance.

And in South Gate, which has had a moratorium on new permits since March, 1991, the Planning Commission is putting the finishing touches on an ordinance that will limit the number of liquor stores and mini-markets in the city. They will not be allowed near schools, churches or close to one another.

The most-effective method that cities have found for limiting alcohol permits is through a conditional-use permit, which allows the city to place restrictions on an outlet.

In Long Beach, for example, Councilman Warren Harwood said nine out of 10 requests for liquor permits in his district are denied.

"In the past, the zoning was very permissive," he said, allowing three times as many licenses as the community needed.

In the aftermath of the April riots in Long Beach, the council considered not allowing burned or vandalized liquor stores to rebuild. The proposal was quickly voted down, however, with council members arguing that restrictions would be unfair to business owners already victimized by the unrest.

Throughout the Southeast and Long Beach areas, restrictions are being applied primarily to smaller stores--mini-markets, liquor stores and mom-and-pop groceries.

For example, Lynwood is considering limiting these outlets to the current 16 liquor stores and 32 mini-markets that sell alcohol.

"These little places become gathering places for bad elements," Lynwood City Manager Faustin Gonzalez said. "And once these places have been issued a license, they are very tough to get rid of, even if you can prove they are a bad influence."

Karen Bass, executive director of the federally funded Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention, agrees that the smaller stores need more restrictions.

"Most restaurants don't have (the bad element), and larger grocery stores can afford security on the premises," Bass said.

Bass cites a study headed by Dr. Richard Scribner at the USC Department of Preventive Medicine that found a high correlation between the number of liquor stores and a neighborhood's crime rate.

"The question becomes, 'Do the outlets create people who drink more, or do people who drink a lot come to these outlets?' " Scribner said. "And then, where does the high crime rate fit in?"

Sheriff's Lt. Chuck Jackson said Lynwood experienced a 62% decrease in deaths due to drunk driving and a noticeable reduction in narcotics and weapons arrests in 1991, when two "very active" nightclubs were shut down because of alcohol violations.

"I'm not saying that all bars or liquor stores attract the crooks," Jackson said. "But it is widely accepted that, if you have someone who is armed and is going to pull a robbery, liquor or drugs are involved."

Jackson said he's seen a developing trend among city councils to request crime data for certain neighborhoods before deciding on liquor license requests.

"They need to know what kind of impact (a new liquor outlet) will have on a community," he said.

South Gate officials found that costs to patrol these places were skyrocketing, Argow said. "We had to put a handle on the numbers before we went broke."

Though the smaller stores are more restricted--Huntington Park's moratorium excluded restaurants and grocery stores larger than 20,000 square feet--some restaurant owners also have been denied permits.

In Lynwood, Roberto Monterrosa, who owns El Camaron restaurant, requested a permit to sell beer and wine at his cafe three months ago. His business was faltering, he said, and needed added revenue from drink sales to stay afloat.

When his request was denied, Monterrosa appealed to the City Council. The council also turned him away but suggested that certain modifications to his restaurant--including safer passageways to the restrooms and a clearly defined drinking area--could help them change their minds.

Monterrosa's landlord, who said he cut the rent in half so El Camaron could succeed, is outraged. He says that he cannot afford to modify the building and that officials are placing unfair conditions on Monterrosa.

"Here's a man who has a nice restaurant, who wants to serve a little beer and wine so he can make it, and they say no," Yoav Botash said. "I don't see how serving a glass of wine will hurt the community."

Scribner's research found that in neighborhoods with a high density of alcohol outlets and where public drinking is common, residents become more tolerant of the abuse.

"If a child on his way to school has to walk past five liquor stores and groups of people drinking, that becomes the norm," USC's Scribner said. "It becomes the backdrop of that child's life, and the norm is to tolerate substance abuse."

To Ofelia Hernandez, that is the best reason to limit the liquor outlets. "That is where they start," she said. "First it's the drinking and then it's the drugs. I am afraid for the kids."

Sobering Numbers

The allocation of beer licenses in Southeast area cities has dropped over a five-year span. The licenses were issued for beer, wine and liquor sales at markets, liquor stores, bars and restaurants.

June 1991 to June 1986 to City Population June 1992 June 1987 Bell 34,365 55 76 Bell Gardens 42,355 63 65 Bellflower 61,815 123 130 Cerritos 53,240 115 130 Compton 90,454 105 120 Cudahy 22,817 26 25 Downey 91,444 162 181 Hawaiian Gardens 13,639 43 49 Huntington Park 56,065 112 116 Long Beach 429,433 888 938 Lynwood 61,945 79 93 Maywood 27,850 52 62 Montebello 59,564 120 127 Norwalk 94,279 128 129 South Gate 86,284 157 170 Whittier 77,671 114 120

Source: California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control

REGULATING ALCOHOL SALES

Cities control liquor sales by setting conditions on stores. Among the conditions:

* Limiting the floor space devoted to alcohol.

* Prohibiting sales of single cans or bottles.

* Locating alcohol displays at the back of the store.

* Limiting advertising in print media and on billboards.

* Regulating the distance between outlets.

* Banning outlets near schools, parks or churches.

* Requiring security guards.

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