Thursday, November 15, 2007

The 2 A.M. Magnum Opus

Governor Ehrlich, on several different occasions, has preached the need to put up a fight, and not run away. And as we know from the new taxes, elected officials can pass bills that are not the right things to do. With such things in mind, I will now endeavour to present a comprehensive analysis of the arguments, subtleties, and ant intricacies surrounding the issue of closing times for bars.

The Back Story

I suppose the original roots of the issue trace back 300 years, when the attitude towards drinking developed in conjunction with the maritime industries of the city. But more specifically, we can look to the 1992 Ward One Sector Study.

From all accounts, a lot of people worked on this report. Most of those people feared that uncontrolled expansion of night life would be a detriment to their quality of life, and set out to strike a compromise regarding proliferation of bars. In exchange for lifting limits on restaurant seating, it was agreed that no new 2 a.m licenses would be granted in the Historic District, thereby enacting what is now referred to as a moratorium on 2 a.m. licenses in that area.

The problem with the moratorium is that it created an uneven playing field. Existing 2 a.m. licenses enjoy grandfathered protection, and can still stay open late. Downtown bars are further penalized in comparison to surrounding areas—as close as inner West St.—where new liquor licenses can apply for a 2 a.m. closing time because they are in another zoning district. The result is that bars located within 500 feet of each other may have different mandated closing times:

Sly Fox (midnight) and Ram’s Head (2 a.m.)

Castle Bay (midnight) and Acme (2 a.m.)

Mangia (midnight) and O’Briens (2 a.m.)

The owners of the midnight licenses were aware of the moratorium, and decided to go into business anyway. Yet, they couldn’t help but notice the inequity of having to kick out loyal customers at midnight, only to see them continue their enjoyment at another bar only several hundred feet away.

Probably the most aggrieved owner, and the angriest, is Vincent Quinlan of Castle Bay on Main Street. Not only was he not allowed a 2 a.m. license, he was forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars to install brewing tanks in his small space, as brewing beer in-house was a requirement of his license.

Mr. Quinlan’s protests to his Alderman were useless; Alderman Israel party-poopingly favors rolling all licenses back to midnight. But his song tempted the sympathies of Ward 3 Alderwoman Classie Hoyle. In May, Alderwoman Hoyle introduced O-23-07, which would allow all classes of liquor licenses in all districts to operate until 2 a.m.

The bill has been heavily debated, and comes up for a final vote on Monday.

The Kurmudgeons

Unfortunately for the bar owners, the bill is opposed by the loudest, most active, best organized, and most well-funded political activists in the city: the Ward 1 residents*.
(*If the Ward 1 and Murray Hill Residents Associations opposed global warming, Mother Nature would fix up the ozone layer above Acton's Landing. If they opposed aging, Father Time would be forced to commission a fountain of youth.)
To boot, some assorted non-alcohol-vending business owners don’t much like the idea either. There are 3 main objections to allowing all bars to stay open until 2 a.m.

The first objection to the bill is a procedural objection, which goes something like this:
The zoning process exists for a reason. We took a lot of time to compose
the 1992 Ward One Sector Study, and made every effort to be fair. A
compromise was made that no new 2 a.m licenses would be given. Perhaps
it’s time for another sector study, but until then, we should be guided by the
old one.
The second objection is my personal favorite, the claim that businesses knew what they were getting in to:
Those bar owners knew what they were getting in to when they chose to open their
bars. We told them not to even think about a 2 a.m. license, and the fact
that they are doing so now validates our fears.
The most violent objection is the quality of life one:
I live downtown and I can’t get a good night’s sleep anymore! Hooligans
are outside of my house at 3 a.m. urinating on my flowers, yelling into their
cellular phones; and one time, I saw a drunk driver plow his car into another
car, then into my garden!
The Fun Lovers

The first argument is the level playing field argument, espoused by both bar owners and disinterested citizens who simply care about fairness:
Hey, this is poppycock. We should be on the same playing field as every
other bar. Not allowing us to apply for 2 a.m. licenses is unfairly
discriminatory. We’re not asking for carte blanche, we just want to have
every bar apply for a 2 a.m. license, then each be punished or rewarded on its
own merit.
The second argument, and the one that I have presented until I was blue in the face, is that bar closing times is not really the issue:
Littering, vandalism, excessive noise and nuisance, public intoxication—these
things are already against the law! All or your points are valid, but they
suggest action regarding police enforcement. We support giving more
resources to police so that they can better address the problem bar customers,
and the problem bars. Don’t punish the responsible bars for the sins of
the offenders—if the current laws were being followed, closing times wouldn’t be
an issue.
Who Is Right?

The fun-lovers, of course.

Time and time again, people argue on emotion. Ward 1 residents observe a problem, and make the erroneous assumption that all bars are bad. Once this happens, there is no turning back, and the battle lines are drawn. I shall try to explain why the 2 a.m. side is the place to be.

EVERYONE Knows What They Are Getting

I will stipulate that the bar owners knew what they were getting in to; any businesses that didn’t know what they were getting in to are probably bankrupt by now. But the residents also knew what they were getting.

The downtown homes are desirable because they are precisely that: downtown. The allure of living in the Historic district is that you are side-by-side with a CITY. The downtown part of a city! And when you live in an urban environment, there will be some give and take. Any resident who didn’t expect night life, foot traffic, or commercialism is crazy. If you value peace and quiet that much, go live in South County, because this is a CITY.

Ward 1 residents and historic preservationists have conspired to make zoning requirements nearly impossible downtown. I’m not saying we shouldn’t preserve our character, but if you’re too hard on businesses, this is what happens:

The residents have to realize that most businesses are net benefits to the community. Sly Fox brought life back to a historic site that long sat idle as a dark corner of unrealized potential. High end restaurants and bars have transformed inner West Street into a vibrant, walkable district. If it weren’t for the bars and restaurants, the city couldn’t support the necessary services for the people who make the houses in Ward 1 so valuable.

Solve The Actual Problem
Should we ban cars because people speed? Should we ban the internet because people use it to steal identities? Should we abolish our entire government because Congressmen are involved in scandals? NO!!! Get it? It's the PEOPLE that are the problem!

The time that a bar closes is not a problem—it is a circumstance. The problems are the underage drinking, drunk driving, flower pot destruction, vandalism, loudness, and idiocy that are ALREADY AGAINST THE LAW. And when things that are already against the law continue to happen, we have an enforcement problem.

Ask yourself this question: If bars were soundproof, required DNA scans to verify identity and age, and all patrons quietly took cabs home, would you care if all of this happened at midnight compared to 2 a.m.? Answer: no, you wouldn’t care.

The problems that happen to Ward 1 residents are not unique. They were going on in Canton, a subsection in Baltimore:
Residents' complaints are plenty: beer bottles through car windows, blocked
streets, fights, screaming and drunken driving. In the past five years, Ratiner
said he has received about 6,000 e-mails from Northshore residents distressed by
bar patrons' behavior. A friend recently videotaped a man leave a bar, climb
into a black sport utility vehicle, run into a female pedestrian and keep
Sound familiar? Let's see how the businesses, citizens, and government of Canton responded:
Residents and bar-goers on Boston Street will see new faces - and more
police uniforms - in Canton this week. Two off-duty police officers will begin
patrolling the nearby Northshore at Canton townhouse community Wednesday, and instead of the usual bouncers or security guards, Good Love Bar, a Boston Street hangout, has already hired two of its own off-duty officers. Huckas, a sports bar and hookah lounge, has also agreed to hire uniformed officers, according to officials.
Amazing! They hired more officers to better enforce laws that already exist. The fight in Canton is actually over who should pay for the officers, and Annapolis can't even figure out that getting more officers is the solution to the problem in the first place!

It also happened in Newport, with a similar result:

Newport, a historic waterfront town, faced a similar situation, said
Richard Sardella, owner of Sardella's Italian Restaurant and Newport mayor from 2000 to 2005.

Up until 1983, bars in Newport were allowed to stay open until 2
a.m.,he said. In response to rowdiness late at night, city officials passed
an ordinance that rolled back bar hours from 2 a.m. to 1 a.m., he said.

He said the new rule resulted in a "mass exodus" of late-night
customers who left Newport for surrounding towns, such as Middletown and
Jamestown, where bars stayed open later.

"They would go half a mile down the road from me to bars that were
open until 2 a.m.," he said.To cut down on liquor violations for late-night
drinkers, Mr. Sardella said he ran for mayor on a platform of "zero tolerance."
He instituted $500 fines for violations such as urinating in public and or
having an open container of alcohol on the street. Mr. Sardella said his efforts
resulted in a dramatic change in the number of violations issued.

Everyone except for Ward 1, and presumably the city council, understands that the way to deal with late night hooliganism is to disincentivize such behavior by levying heavy fines and getting the police you need to enforce the rules. The responsible bars have even offered to help with this process—they live here too, and they hate bad customers and bad bars just as much as you do.

Businesses Deserve A Level Playing Field

I attended the Planning Commission hearing when this issue was discussed. Many people made the argument that the current zoning arrangement is unfair, and needs to be fixed.

After patiently hearing all of the testimony, at least one of the commissioners came to the conclusion that zoning was inherently unfair, and a right to fairness was not a qualification for a change in zoning.

When hearing this, I just sighed. It is true that on occasion, the RESULT of a zoning decision is unfair. But the zoning process should not aim to be unfair. It should not be arbitrarily unfair.

If you want to be unfair, you have to prove that the unfairness is in the best interest of the city. To suggest that such is the case with the bars is laughable. Whether a bar closes at 2 a.m or midnight has nothing to do with how much the bar contributes or detracts from the community. This is what everyone forgets! The majority of businesses, bars included, are net benefits to communities. They increase property values, provide employment, and provide services to the residents. Where would Ward 1 be without businesses to make investments in the community, the same as the residents do?

Imagine the frustration of the midnight bars. They follow the rules, yet have to literally take the drinks out of their customers’s hands and throw them away, only to see their customers spend money 300 feet away for the next 2 hours. How is this fair? Better yet, what is the justification for keeping things so UNfair?

Even if you don’t agree with the 2 a.m. closing time (which makes no sense because the time is not the issue), you certainly must acknowledge that all bars should be evaluated the same. If you want to keep the same number of 2 a.m licenses, let all bars make a case for themselves. No more protection for the bars that were grandfathered in—make all of the bars go before the Liquor Board and prove how they are following the rules, and how the help the community. Protecting problem-causing 2 a.m. bars at the expense of the responsible bars needs to stop.

There Are 8 Wards In The City—The Rest Of Us Want This To Happen
Ward 1 will tell you that their opinion is the only one that matters, since their ward contains the overwhelming majority of liquor licenses. This couldn't be more wrong. Let me address Ward 1 directly:

As taxpayers and city residents, you have the right to protest things if you
want to. But so do the rest of us! We pay taxes just like you; our
taxes pay for the police in your ward, for your roads, etc. Furthermore,
we like going downtown to eat and drink. And if we, the other 7 wards,
outnumber your opposition to the bill, then we win. Like I said before, it
was your choice to live downtown.

The bar issue, like all of politics, is victimized by rent-seeking. Special interests, both for and against, have the biggest incentive to voice their opinions to the city council. Forgotten in the discussion are the people in the middle.

To over-simplify, bar owners are for the bill and Ward 1 residents are against. But what about everyone else? You know, the people that live in the other 7 wards in the city? I bet that every Ward except Ward 1 is in favor of this bill overall. But we don’t hear from these people because they aren’t affected enough to take the time to testify. Shouldn’t the city council take into account the view of the majority of its citizens?
An unscientific poll showed an even split on the issue.....much different from the sweeping opposition that will be displayed at the city council meeting. Some aldermen started out talking a good game. So said Alderman Shropshire:
I requested a City Council study session with the Annapolis Alcoholic
Beverage Control Board. I will be requesting stricter enforcement of laws and
stiffer penalties for serving underage drinkers and for over-serving other
restaurant/bar patrons.
Even the mayor proclaimed Annapolis to be a 2 a.m. drinking town. But the latest word is that most aldermen have backed off, and will vote in the negative. All the council knows is that Ward 1 will be up in arms if this bill passes, and that’s enough for them.
Now Is As Good A Time As Any
In response to the proocedural objection, there's more than 1 way to skin a cat. Yes, another Ward 1 sector study could include a new study of the issue. So could the Comprehensive Plan. But if 5 members of the city council think this is a good idea--and based on the points I have just made, they should--then an ordinance to do so is appropriate at any time, such as now.

What Will Happen

Unfortunately, as I have alluded to before, my opinion will be the dissenting opinion. The smart money is on the council voting down the bill on Monday.

What Should Happen

Someone, perhaps soon-to-be-elected Fred Paone in Ward 2, needs to draft a new bill.

Here are some suggestions: some for fun, others for real.

1. Hire 23 more police officers and put some of them on late night shifts to catch the people who are grievously offending property and quality of life. Heck, have them enforce parking laws on residential streets as well. And while we're at it, give them a raise, and a fine fruit basket at Christmas time.

2. Fix the police department building, so that when the above hooligans are arrested, there is someplace to put them.

3. Require a yearly review of all liquor licenses, whereby a bar that doesn't run a good/safe operation can be, perhaps, rolled back to a midnight closing, forced to close during Naval Academy graduation week, etc.

4. Use the threat of revoking a liquor license to incentivize bars to clean up their acts. The county did that to the Green Turtle in Edgewater, and they now have to close at midnight for a year!

5. Require all new liquor license holders to operate with a midnight license for a year before being allowed to have a 2 am.

6. Allow ward 1 residents to conscript into servitude the drunken idiots who ruin it for the rest of us.

7. Provide tougher enforcement (or any enforcement, really) of nuisance laws, for example by putting putting 1 newly hired police officer on 23 different blocks in ward 1, with the authority to write $500 citations for violations.

8. And lastly, the drum beats on for collaboration. Residents and businesses should figure out ways to work together. Bars should run operations that don't cause problems, and residents should realize that some things come with the territory when you live within walking distance of a downtown area.

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