Omaha could impose new limits on the number of businesses allowed to sell alcohol in designated areas of the city or impose other restrictions under a proposed change to city zoning ordinances.
The proposal is part of a three-pronged plan to give the city sweeping regulatory power over liquor sales.
The draft ordinance, which could soon go before the City Council, would establish a $75 fee for alcohol retailers and also allow the city to revoke the occupancy certificate for businesses that don't comply with the proposed rules.
The city's liquor retailers would also have to conform with a set of “nuisance prevention standards.”
The proposal could encounter opposition from business groups and the liquor industry. An Omaha neighborhood leader who has long pushed for tougher liquor laws deemed it a good first step.
“There is just tons of national data out there that says when you have a density of alcohol outlets in struggling neighborhoods, it just sort of feeds into violence and public health issues,” said Margie Magnuson, a spokesperson for the Alcohol Impact Coalition.
Though it's rooted in lobbying efforts from neighborhood groups, the proposal is also an extension of local concerns about health and safety risks associated with alcohol sales in some areas. Council members have often pressed some liquor license applicants to refrain from selling single-serving containers of alcohol, for example.
Tom Mumgaard, a deputy city attorney who drafted the proposal, said the idea is partly based on a proposal that was before the Legislature during its last session but was not approved.
That bill, which was endorsed by the City of Omaha, would have allowed cities to ask the Liquor Control Commission to create alcohol zones in designated areas of public inebriation or illegal activity as a way to restrict alcohol sales.
Mumgaard said the Nebraska Supreme Court has allowed cities to use zoning laws to control liquor sales.
“We're not regulating liquor licenses, we're regulating land use and business operations,” he said. “We are now looking to see how much further a city can go in using its power to regulate land use, at least in controlling the way a business is operated once it gets a liquor license.”
The timing of the proposal's formal introduction will likely hinge on how quickly feedback is received from city officials, neighborhood groups and liquor interests.
“We've got to vet this first,” said Councilman Ben Gray, who will sponsor the proposal. “We want to get feedback. I'm not trying to rush what we're doing.”
“If the $75 (fee) is going to be an issue, it's about 20 cents a day to ensure we have better tools to go after the bad operators,” Gray said. “Everyone, including the good operators, ought to want that.”
The proposed ordinance is a more narrow version of one proposed months ago by neighborhood groups concerned with the density of alcohol retailers in parts of Omaha.
Under the proposed zoning rules, residents, neighborhood associations or City Council members could ask the Planning Board and council to create “alcohol impact overlay districts” — defined as areas that could be prone to alcohol-related issues such as public drunkenness, noise, fights, vandalism or other illegal activity.
If such a district was approved, the council could impose special conditions on liquor retailers within the district.
According to the draft proposal, those include: limiting the number of locations within a district where alcohol can be sold, imposing specific business hours for alcohol sales and regulating a building's signage or entrances. Existing properties within a district wouldn't be required to comply until they renew their license or make changes that require a new license.
All liquor retailers would be subject to the $75 fee, regardless of whether they are inside an impact zone. The money would fund efforts to enforce the ordinance.
Those who violate the proposed ordinance's provisions would be targeted under procedures set for nuisances such as weeds, litter or noise violations. Their $75 fee would increase to $300.
The city would notify the violator and grant a period of time for the business to fix the issue or appeal. If the business did not comply, the city could suspend or revoke the retailer's occupancy certificate.
“I think this ordinance could be a good start for us, but it could evolve and I hope perhaps it will,” Magnuson said.
The proposed rules would require Planning Board approval before being forwarded to the City Council for consideration.
City Clerk Buster Brown said the proposal could head to the Planning Board in August at the earliest. That means the council could receive it by September.
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