City moves to cap off-site liquor licenses downtown

The Huntington Beach City Council continued to address the alcohol problem in the downtown area by agreeing Monday to proceed with clamping down on liquor licenses in the area.

Council members voted 6 to 1, with Mayor Pro Tem Matthew Harper dissenting, to amend the zoning code to cap liquor licenses for businesses that sell alcohol in sealed containers, such as liquor and convenience stores.

New establishments would have to abide by the zoning rule should the item be approved by the California Coastal Commission, which could take anywhere from three to six months, associate planner Jennifer Villasenor said. The five businesses that currently have such a license would be grandfathered in.

The City Council in July passed a resolution recommending that police Chief Ken Small formally protest requests from new establishments seeking a so-called off-site liquor license from the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Mayor Connie Boardman said those who oppose the cap would argue that grocery stores that want to sell alcohol wouldn't be able to set foot in the city, but she said they can establish themselves in the city, just not in the downtown area.

"I think it's really important that this council starts to send the message to landowners downtown and landlords downtown that we have enough alcohol-dependent businesses," Boardman said. "We need a diversity of businesses. You need to start leasing to businesses [where] their survival doesn't depend on alcohol. And I think one way to do that is to cap the number of licenses where they are now so we don't have an increase."

Downtown resident Richardson Gray said this was a win in his books and a start to resolving the alcohol-related problems in the area.

"This is the first item I've seen in the seven years I've lived here that has some real teeth, that we're actually going to say, 'No, this is enough,'" he said.

The council could have followed the Planning Commission's recommendation, which would require that businesses get a conditional use permit through the commission for any on- or off-site licenses.

Harper wasn't supportive of that choice because it implied an increase in the power of the commission.

"I think that this, like many of the proposed bans from this City Council, is ripe for potential unintended consequences," he said.

Another route that council members could have taken was a mixture of both proposals, where off-site licenses would be capped while on-site alcohol establishments, like restaurants and bars, would need to get a conditional use permit from the Planning Commission.

"It would limit pre-partying and increase sales inside [businesses]," said Councilwoman Jill Hardy, who brought up the hybrid motion.

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