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Planning Commission taking aim at liquor licenses, Baines at "packaged sin"

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The Fresno Planning Commission is still trying to get its hands around booze – booze regulation, that is.

The commissioners shouldn’t feel bad. As Wednesday’s events revealed, alcohol and public policy create a mind-scrambling mix throughout City Hall.

Let’s start with my afternoon phone call to the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control in Sacramento. I knew the evening Planning Commission meeting would be chock full of alcohol-regulation issues. I figured now was a good time to tie up a loose end from a previous CVObserver story by calling ABC spokesman John Carr.

Back in February I wrote about the owner of a convenience store on the southeast corner of Cedar and Clinton avenues who wanted a state license to sell beer and wine. His problem: The store was about 270 feet from McLane High School.

That, by itself, wasn’t a deal killer. But the law does give ABC plenty of cover to deny a liquor license to a business owner whose store is within 600 feet of a school.

The storeowner’s only hope was to craft a special permit full of strict operating instructions for his store, and get the Planning Commission to approve it. This special permit is called a conditional use permit (CUP).

The storeowner did something really smart. He hired Dirk Poeschel, one of Fresno’s top land-use consultants, to be his advocate at City Hall.

Poeschel came up with a proposed CUP that addressed all sorts of alcohol-related issues at a retail store in the shadow of a high school. For example, the CUP prohibited sale of booze during certain hours when students would be coming/going to school in big numbers.

Officials at Fresno Unified School District opposed the sale of booze so close to McLane. But no district official showed up to personally protest the storeowner’s CUP application when the Planning Commission in January had to make its decision.

The commissioners at that meeting clearly had a hard time coming to a firm conclusion. On one hand, they didn’t want to get in the way of a legitimate business. On the other hand, they knew the scourge that is underage drinking.

In the end, the commissioners approved the CUP to sell beer/wine across the street from McLane. Randy Reed cast the lone no vote. The absence of Fresno Unified officials in the council chamber led some commissioners to wonder if the district’s written opposition was largely for show.

It wasn’t.

The commissioners’ decision in essence ended City Hall’s involvement in the licensing part of the story. But the pivotal decision – does the convenience store owner get his liquor license or not – was in ABC’s hands.

Fresno Unified fired off another letter in opposition, this one to ABC headquarters. ABC officials said they’d give the matter a thorough study, then make its decision at some point in the future.

That point came May 10. ABC’s Carr told me Wednesday afternoon that the Quick Mart catty-corner to McLane’s football stadium got its beer/wine license on that date.

You can be sure of one thing: Quick Mart vs. McLane won’t be the last time a conflict over booze regulation pops up in Fresno.

That’s why the Planning Commission on Wednesday evening was treated to a workshop on alcohol regulation. The workshop’s specific topic was regulation in the old development code compared to regulation in the new (as of late 2015) development code.

The workshop turned out to be the only item of note on the agenda. But that’s only because two other items were postponed.

It’s worth taking a brief look at those two postponed items before we turn to the workshop.

The first involves a CUP application from a company that wants to build a Circle K convenience store on the northeast corner of Peach and Olive avenues in east-central Fresno.

The site is four acres. The store would sell gas and have a car wash. The store also wants to sell beer, wine and distilled spirits.

Fresno Unified’s Turner Elementary School is 850 feet from the site. Fresno Adventist Academy is 1,000 feet away. More than 200 people signed petitions opposing the CUP’s liquor provisions. Fresno Unified opposes the sale of liquor there.

In other words, the CUP application is being appealed.

The Olive/Peach intersection is close to a lot of very large apartment complexes. It’s an area of town in which City Hall, with its focus on inner-city revitalization, is trying to get a handle on the behavior of both landlord and tenant in very large apartment complexes.

The Olive/Peach CUP issue bypassed the Planning Commission on Wednesday, but it’s coming back.

The second CUP application pulled from Wednesday’s agenda involves a high-profile piece of land on the edge of Downtown.

The site is on the northeast corner of Divisadero Street and Van Ness Avenue. It’s home to a 7,300-square-foot building and a rather small parking lot. A small movie theater was once one of the tenants. The place has been empty for years.

The owner wants to build a neighborhood grocery store that sells local produce and fresh meat as well as beer and wine (for consumption off-site).

Fresno Unified officials have submitted a letter opposing the sale of alcohol on the site. The district notes that the site is 540 feet from Lowell Elementary School.

According to city records, Barbara Fiske, chairwoman of the Lowell Neighborhood Association, sent a letter of protest to planning director Jennifer Clark.

“There is a common concern from neighbors that loitering by alcohol consumers would drift from the store’s property … to adjacent open fields, parking lots and alley ways,” Fiske wrote.

The intersection of Divisadero and Van Ness may well be the piece of geography most important to Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s vision for Fresno. It’s here that Downtown, the Cultural Arts District and the historic but challenged neighborhood of Lowell all meet. And it’s here that Van Ness curves due north, turning into a one-way street that is Downtown’s most convenient gateway to the Tower District.

To say that Swearengin wants Divisadero/Van Ness to blossom with virtuous vitality is an understatement.

The area has no grocery store of note. The area has other places to buy booze. The CUP application is heading the Planning Commission’s way.

It was with this as backdrop that planning manager Bonique Emerson on Wednesday led the commissioners through the new development code’s edicts for the off-sale (buying a six-pack to take home) of alcohol.

To a layman like me, there seemed to be one big change from the old code to the new code.

“The new code gives staff more authority to deny applications prior to submittal and also allows staff to condition applications appropriately so that undesired outcomes are minimized,” Emerson said in her PowerPoint presentation.

Was it just my imagination, or did I see the commissioners breathe a sigh of relief? They must have thought: Great – let planning director Clark and her staff take a firm stand on the wisdom of these controversial liquor CUPs, then we’ll have cover to rubber stamp their recommendations when the neighborhood appeals come rolling in.

And make no mistake – new development code or not, the entire scope of City Hall regulation of alcohol sales is an increasingly hot topic for Fresnans of every stripe.

Council Member Oliver Baines and a handful of officials from the local Youth Leadership Institute gathered Wednesday afternoon at City Hall for a news conference.

In a sense they also conducted a development code workshop. Their aim was to educate the public on the way the new code regulates the outdoor signage of retailers selling what might be called packaged sin: Alcohol, tobacco, sugary soft drinks.

Any dedicated explorer of Fresno’s urban delights has seen store windows full of booze and tobacco advertisements. For alcohol retailers, according to the new development code, no more than 15% of each window may be covered with booze ads. For tobacco only retailers, the maximum is 25%.

Code enforcement inspectors, rapidly joining police officers and firefighters as Fresno’s top heroes, will make sure everyone complies.

Why limit the amount of outdoor liquor/tobacco advertising?

Baines said it best. He said many of today’s young people, impressionable as young people have been through the ages, are trying hard to leave behind their burdens of alcohol and tobacco consumption.

“Yet society keeps pulling them in that direction through advertising,” Baines said.

Several of the young speakers expressed similar sentiments, but with more passion. Right or wrong, they see alcohol retailers with their in-your-face storefront advertising as more predator than tribune of free markets.

I saw a couple of the Youth Leadership Institute students at Wednesday’s Planning Commission workshop.

I suspect they’ll be back when those postponed CUP appeal hearings land in the commissioners’ laps.

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

1 Comment

  1. Hello!

    My name is Michelle Rivera.

    I am a Health Education Specialist for the Department of Public Health. I would like to thank you for covering this important issue. I am tracking media impressions for this story, and I would like to know if you use analytics for your website? Can you tell me how many people visit your website and receive your newsletter? Was this story published in your newsletter? I wasn’t able to subscribe before the your Friday edition.

    Michelle Rivera

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