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Bill McEwen

The Days of Rubber-Stamping Liquor Licenses Are Over



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The shameful City Hall ritual of rubber-stamping liquor licenses finally faces its deserved demise.
For decades, residents, school officials, and ministers have sought to convince city officials the last thing Fresno needed was another place selling booze.

Portrait of GV Wire News Director/Columnist Bill McEwen
Bill McEwen
But their pleas invariably fell on death ears. Don’t think of these places as liquor stores, think of them as economic investments, said the dais bobbleheads. Who are we to pick winners and losers? This is America, where the marketplace decides.
Amazingly, many of these licenses gained approval because the council deemed them “a public necessity.”

Council Will Take Up Tough New Rules on Thursday

Now city councilmembers Miguel Arias, Nelson Esparza, and Luis Chavez are putting forth a proposal that, if successful, will reduce the number of liquor stores and convenience stores selling alcohol and enforce long-ignored regulations.
They have the support of local convenience store owners. But the resolution, as written, is opposed by Fresno Mayor Lee Brand. The resolution is set for 3:30 p.m at Thursday’s city council meeting. However, Chavez on Wednesday called for a one-week delay on the resolution to make some changes.
“I’ve met with the top officials at (Alcohol Beverage Control) in Sacramento, and they’ve told me ideally a city should have one liquor license per 2,500 residents,” Arias said. “In Fresno, the ratio is one license per 1,000 residents, and in south council districts it’s one per 500 residents.”

The Plan to Restore Liquor License Sanity

How do the councilmembers propose to get Fresno into balance?
By capping licenses at the current level and requiring new convenience stores wanting to sell booze to “retire” one existing license and buy another to operate. Big stores such as Costco will be required to buy four existing licenses — three for retirement. Midsize stores must retire two licenses.

“This ordinance is the result of the admirable work our youth and residents have done to reduce the high number of alcohol licenses granted in their communities.” — Fresno City Councilman Miguel Arias
In addition, if a store needs a conditional use permit to operate and wants to sell alcohol, it will need an additional CUP for liquor.
The proposal also calls for counting liquor licenses by council district instead of by census tract. New stores selling liquor must be 1,000 feet away from a school or park — twice as far as today.
These fixes won’t happen overnight. Should the resolution gain approval, a six-month period of review and fine-tuning follows.

City Finds 930 Violations in One Sweep

With the city’s code-enforcement officers focused on the new rental-inspection program and making slumlords clean up their acts, they haven’t enforced rules regulating liquor stores. These include advertising covering windows, selling single bottles of beer and wine, and missing ABC-required signage.
However, members of the city attorney’s office recently visited 204 businesses selling alcohol in city council districts 1,3,5, and 7. They observed a total of 930 local and state violations related to alcohol sales. In addition, a review of police records showed several stores with 200 or more calls for service. One outlet had 492 calls for service.
“If someone wants to buy alcohol, they’re going to do it,” Arias said. “But the excessive number of liquor stores is affecting not only youth, crime rates, and our homeless population but all of our quality of life — especially in south Fresno.
“This ordinance is the result of the admirable work our youth and residents have done to reduce the high number of alcohol licenses granted in their communities.”
Other components of the resolution address blight, loitering and police calls. Window signage, for example, is limited to 5% of each window. And wholesalers would face restrictions aimed at eliminating single-sale bottles of beer, malt liquor, and wine coolers. Distilled spirits in mini-bottles are also out.

Funding Must Back This Effort

Portrait of Fresno Mayor Lee Brand
“While I agree with many parts of this proposal, there are other parts of it that would add unnecessary and extraordinary burdens on small businesses.” — Fresno Mayor Lee Brand 
Passing new rules isn’t enough. To ensure they accomplish the intended result, the next budget must include funding for more code enforcement officers. Otherwise, this is just another set of well-intentioned, toothless rules.
The devil is always in the details. After seeing the proposal, which has gone through several revisions, Brand decided to oppose it — even though he says that “Fresno has plenty of liquor licenses, a lot of them in south Fresno.”
Said the mayor in a statement:
“While I agree with many parts of this proposal, there are other parts of it that would add unnecessary and extraordinary burdens on small businesses. As we all know, small businesses make up 99.7 percent of all businesses in the United States, and they account for 64 percent of net new private sector jobs. Until those issues are resolved, I cannot support the current proposal.”

Convenience Store Owners Want Rules Enforced

Berman Obaldia is executive director of the American Petroleum and Convenience Store Association. He says his members in Fresno “want an aggressive inspection program.” When the rules aren’t enforced, Obaldia said, those who play by the rules are at a competitive disadvantage.

Andy Chhikara, head of the group’s Valley chapter, says his members support the cap on licenses. They also want strong enforcement.

“This city has a reputation as a place that won’t enforce, and there are shady operators taking advantage,” Chhikara said.

Fine-Tuning Ahead

Upon council approval, the resolution would undergo more analysis. The Planning Commission and the Airport Land Use Commission also must weigh in.
Whatever the final rules look like, I’m confident that the city council — this edition, anyway — won’t approve liquor stores as a public necessity.
“What’s been done, for too long,” says Arias, “has resulted in a race to the bottom for Fresno.”
Editor’s Note: This column was updated at 4:42 p.m. Tuesday to reflect Brand’s opposition to the resolution.

Bill McEwen is news director and columnist for GV Wire. He joined GV Wire in August 2017 after 37 years at The Fresno Bee. With The Bee, he served as Opinion Editor, City Hall reporter, Metro columnist, sports columnist and sports editor through the years. His work has been frequently honored by the California Newspapers Publishers Association, including authoring first-place editorials in 2015 and 2016. Bill and his wife, Karen, are proud parents of two adult sons, and they have two grandsons. You can contact Bill at 559-492-4031 or at Send an Email