Changes to the District’s Alcohol Laws Debated at D.C. Council Committee Hearing

During a five hour hearing by the D.C. Council Committee on Human Services, over 30 witnesses testified about the Omnibus Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Amendment Act of 2012.  Chairman Jim Graham (Ward One) presided over the hearing and mediated between the concerns of local restaurant owners and neighborhood community leaders.

The amendments to the bill are a result of a taskforce, assembled by Chairman Graham, which met from December 2011 until April 2012, to help draft the legislation.  The taskforce consisted of 26 stakeholders including 14 Advisory Neighborhood Council (“ANC”) Commissioners, six alcohol licensees, two Business Improvement District (“BID”) representatives, the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, and government officials.

Out of the 43 changes proposed by the taskforce and codified in the bill, the most controversial provisions relate to 1) standing requirements for a D.C. resident to protest an alcohol license; 2) the conditions that are permitted in Voluntary Agreements; and 3) the enforcement of noise complaints against licensees.

Standing Requirements to Protest a License:

Currently, D.C. Code § 25-601 lists the persons or entities that may protest a new alcohol license as 1) an abutting property owner to the establishment; 2) a group of five D.C. residents;  3) a property owner within 600 feet of the establishment; 3) a citizen’s association; and 4) affected ANCs.

The new regulation would require the group of five residents to live within 400 feet of the establishment.  During the hearings, it was established that 400 feet is the equivalent of one city block, which many of the neighborhood witnesses believed was too restrictive, although most conceded some geographical limitation is appropriate.

Voluntary Agreement Provisions:

The D.C. code does not enumerate what types of provisions a Voluntary Agreement may contain, but the new regulations provides greater clarity as to what types of restrictions or affirmative requirements may be imposed on the licensee regarding entertainment, noise, litter, parking, security, hours of operation, and occupancy.

Additionally, Section § 25-446 is to be amended to give Voluntary Agreements negotiated between ANCs and applicants precedent over Cooperative Agreements negotiated between residents and applicants.   Graham corrected a typo in the current bill, which states that once a Voluntary Agreement is signed between an ANC and the applicant, all other protests would be dismissed by the ABRA board.

The purpose of this provision is to reduce the number of duplicate voluntary agreements, unnecessary paperwork and extreme delays in the licensing process caused by duplicate protest groups.  It was included to give due respect to the opinions of the democratically elected representatives of the ANCs and grant them greater weight in the process.  However, Graham noted that the bill, as drafted, mischaracterized the process.  Protests by neighborhood associations would not be dismissed after a Voluntary Agreement with an ANC is signed, and any Cooperative Agreement signed prior to the Voluntary Agreement with the ANC would be incorporated into the final Board Order.

Enforcement of Noise Complaints:

Two solutions proposed by new regulations to help abate the noise issues between establishments and neighbors is to require ABRA to maintain a noise complaint line and track noise complaints and to require all mixed use buildings, constructed after January 1, 2013, to be built with a minimum sound transmission class rating.

Ernest D. Jarvis, President of the D.C. Building Industry Association testified against such a blanket provision for any new mixed use building, citing the economic burden placed on builders, and Nicholas Majett, Director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), echoed Mr. Jarvis’ sentiment.  Chairman Graham agreed to work with Mr. Majett to include language that would be amenable to both builders and neighborhood residents.

Chairman Graham and the Committee will review all of the comments submitted by the witnesses.  A final version of this bill will likely not be presented to the full D.C. Council until Fall 2012, at the earliest.

If you have any questions about this pending legislation, please contact our offices.  To see the full video recording of the hearing, please click here.

— July 13, 2012