Influential business interests warned that a proposal to broadly expand the City of Omaha's authority over alcohol retailers is a potentially illegal effort that could harm businesses and Omaha's most popular nightlife spots.
But a clutch of community groups and public health experts on Wednesday urged the Omaha Planning Board to endorse the controversial proposal to help cut crime and such problems as public drunkenness.
Board members responded with a 4-1 vote to endorse an expansion of local zoning laws, sending the proposed ordinance to a showdown before the Omaha City Council in the coming weeks.
“This is not a solution in search of a problem,” said Diane Riibe, executive director of Project Extra Mile. “Alcohol is no ordinary commodity.”
Said Joseph Young, public policy director for the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce: “We believe that several of these provisions are at best unfair, and at worst not even legal. And, in many cases, probably both.”
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” — designated areas that could be prone to alcohol-related problems such as public drunkenness, noise, fights or vandalism.
If such a district were approved, the council could impose special conditions on liquor retailers within the district.
According to the proposed ordinance, the city could go as far as limiting the number of locations within a district where alcohol could be sold and imposing specific business hours for alcohol sales. The restrictions could include regulating a building's signage, lighting, entrances or parking.
The ordinance would establish a $75 fee for alcohol retailers and allow the city to revoke the occupancy certificate for businesses that don't comply with the rules. All liquor retailers would be subject to the $75 fee, regardless of whether they are inside an impact zone. Revenue from the fee, estimated to generate some $90,000 a year, would fund enforcement of the ordinance and provide resources to deal other alcohol-related problems.
In addition, all city liquor retailers would have to conform with a set of “nuisance prevention standards.” For liquor retailers, such nuisances would include drug activity, public urination, littering or excessive noise.
Businesses that violate the ordinance's nuisance provisions would be targeted under procedures already in place for nuisances such as weeds and litter or noise violations. If they failed to correct a nuisance problem, their $75 fee would increase to $300.
“What we're aiming to do here is have an effective response to what we could call the external effects of the sale of alcohol,” said Tom Mumgaard, a deputy city attorney who drafted the proposal. “It's a quality-of-life-type issue.”
Residents who supported the proposed rules said a high density of poorly managed liquor retailers, particularly in areas east of 72nd Street, contribute to violence and crime.
Public health experts including Adi Pour of the Douglas County Health Department and Johns Hopkins University professor David Jernigan warned of the dangers associated with binge drinking and the crime risks in areas with a large number of alcohol retailers.
“This was legislation that was driven by the community,” Councilman Ben Gray said during his testimony. “People have serious concerns about alcohol abuse, alcohol bingeing, drunk driving, all those sorts of things. ... It is time for us to have a serious and significant discussion about that.”
Opponents, including chamber officials and restaurant industry representatives, countered that the fee would punish law-abiding liquor retailers and damage the growth of areas such as the Old Market, Dundee, north downtown and Midtown Crossing.
Legal battles could erupt over the city's authority to impose such restrictions, opponents said, when existing laws could be used to deal with any problems.
“The concerns that you hear today from some of the neighborhood representatives have some merit,” Young said. “We believe, however, that the problem they're trying to address can and should be fixed by means other than a new law that imposes harsh restrictions on many good citizens rather than targets the few who perpetually have run-ins with the law.”
Restaurant and liquor industry representatives aren't necessarily of one mind on the issue.
Molly Romero, co-owner of Marks Bistro in Dundee and head of the Dundee-Memorial Park Association, said her business partners and neighborhood alliance endorse the proposed ordinance.
Romero said the proposed $75 fee for retailers was “extremely reasonable.”
“Omaha needs this,” she said.
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