Alcohol venues in San Luis Obispo to get new guidelines

Stricter operating standards for new and existing businesses serving alcohol are being crafted by San Luis Obispo officials in an attempt to curb nuisances caused by excessive drinking downtown.

The effort, which has been years in the making, will likely culminate in an updated set of rules that will give city leaders more control in regulating alcohol outlets.

The City Council endorsed the approach last week and voiced support for the recently formed Safe Nightlife Association, a conglomeration of bar and restaurant owners downtown that is taking a proactive approach to making improvements.

The new regulations are still being defined, and city officials say it could be the middle of next year before they are ready to be reviewed.

Some of the regulations being considered would allow the city to distinguish between restaurants and nightclubs and require security plans and specific training for people serving alcohol.

In 2009, the council paid $22,000 for a report by a Berkeley consultant that assessed the number of police responses in the city and showed a disproportionate number of such events at or near downtown liquor establishments.

At that time, the council was presented with a host of new regulations to consider levying on bars and restaurants serving alcohol, including an fee that such establishments would pay to help fund additional police time.

That led to an outcry by bar owners and restaurant managers, but the council directed staff to proceed exploring all options, including additional regulations, such as tightening the zoning rules. Police Chief Deborah Linden said the city is often forced to rely on state regulations, and the latest effort is a way to allow local control for addressing the negative impacts associated with alcohol sales.

People flooding the downtown excessively drunk, driving under the influence and urinating or vomiting are some of the issues police encounter.

“This is a way to give the city better ability to ensure that the alcohol outlet operators are running businesses in a safe and responsible manner,” Linden said.

Relying on state laws, she said, to regulate issues such as serving alcohol to minors or overindulging patrons isn’t practical.

“It’s not appropriate for people to be stumbling out of restaurants or bars and nightclubs so drunk that we are arresting them for public intoxication,” Linden said.

The regulations would be attached to conditional-use permits for new businesses that sell alcohol.Existing businesses would fall under a “deemed approved ordinance,” which would allow the city to trigger the new standards if a business fails to operate responsibly, said Doug Davidson, deputy director of the city’s Community Development Department.

Today there are 20 bars downtown, including two on the outskirts, and only seven of those have existing conditional-use permits. The bars without conditional-use permits were established prior to the requirement.

Davidson said the new regulations are not meant to encroach on the daily operations of alcohol outlets but to make sure they are operating by city standards.

“An existing bar in operation for 20 years that hasn’t had any problems will not even know the difference,” Davidson said.

Bill Hales, who owns six bars downtown, including MoTav, The Library and the Frog and Peach, said he supports the city’s latest efforts.

“The big thing we are trying to avoid is the city levying a bunch of fees on us — it is tough enough to make it as it is,” said Hales, who is a part of the Safe Nightlife Association.

The association recently launched a public awareness campaign and a program called One 86, All 86, which means that if a patron gets kicked out of a bar for rowdy behavior — known as being 86’d — that person’s photo is taken and circulated among the other bars so the individual can’t continue to drink downtown that night.

Retried San Luis Obispo police Lt. Steve Tolley is leading the effort along with downtown bar and restaurant owners who want to take a collaborative approach in solving the issue.

“It is fine to put conditions on licenses, and we should all want to run good businesses,” Hales said. “We wanted to be at the table for discussions and be a part of the process to have a good constructive discussion.”