ENCINITAS — Residents gathered en masse at Wednesday night’s City Council meeting to weigh in on a proposed citywide bar moratorium.
The moratorium, a freeze on all new bars, pubs and breweries, was placed on the agenda in response to residents’ concerns over nightlife. As written, it also puts a hold on applications for businesses wanting to expand their liquor licenses to serve more people or remain open later.
Rather than give that moratorium a simple up or down vote, councilmembers took two separate actions.
First, City Council asked the Encinitas Hospitality Committee, a newly minted group made up of bar owners, to bring back a comprehensive plan addressing nightlife concerns in 45 days.
Councilwoman Kristin Gaspar said the bars should be given a chance to develop their own proposal. When it comes to bars and other businesses, self-policing is a better course of action than legislation, she said.
“What I learned over time in managing people, when I allowed our employees to be empowered and identifying solutions to problems…the outcome was much better,” Gaspar said.
Second, councilmembers voted 3-2 to place a revised moratorium on next week’s agenda. Instead of a freeze on all liquor licenses, the new moratorium applies to liquor-license applications for businesses planning to offer alcohol after 10 p.m.
Deputy Mayor Lisa Shaffer, who made the motion, said the moratorium should focus on late-night bars and restaurants, because most complaints can be traced to those establishments.
She added a 45-day moratorium would let the city incorporate policy suggestions from the Encinitas Hospitality Committee into plans for new bars and restaurants.
“This gives us time to hear from the hospitality group,” Shaffer said.
However, Gaspar opposed the motion. She said a moratorium should only be considered if the hospitality committee’s recommendations are deemed unsatisfactory.
“By keeping that moratorium out…it gives added incentive for the committee to do their job quickly and well in light of the potential moratorium,” Gaspar said.
To pass, the updated moratorium will need four councilmembers to vote in favor. If backed by the City Council, a moratorium would take effect right away and last for 45 days. From there, City Council has the option of extending it for an extra 10 months. And then an additional year would be on the table.
More than a year ago, a large group of residents packed into council chambers to decry the rise in downtown drinking. To address the issue, DEMA (Downtown Encinitas Mainstreet Association) facilitated a handful of stakeholder meetings among bars, residents and law enforcement.
Residents gathered at City Hall two weeks ago to argue the DEMA recommendations didn’t go far enough — a meeting that wasn’t attended by any bar owners.
But most of the more than 30 public speakers at Wednesday night’s meeting opposed a bar moratorium.
Marco Gonzalez, an attorney representing several restaurants, said the hospitality industry was “woken up” by the talk of a moratorium.
He believes the Encinitas Hospitality Committee will be more successful than the DEMA stakeholder group in crafting solutions. For one, more restaurants and bars are involved. And the focus is now on the collective, whereas bars were more inward looking in the past.
“Self-regulation has numerous benefits,” Gonzalez said. “There’s something that happens when one business owner turns to another and says ‘your actions will negatively impact me.’”
But Jerry Hall said the committee is only proof of the local hospitality industry beginning to flex its muscle. A longtime Pacific Beach resident, he argued Encinitas should implement liquor-license reforms before the hospitality industry becomes more powerful.
“If not, Encinitas will be on the path to Pacific Beach,” Hall said.
Bobby Virk, owner of the Moonlight Beach 7-Eleven, said many of the problems being blamed on bars are actually due to vagrancy, homelessness and drugs. He also argued bars are a significant economic driver for the city.
Resident Kirk Allen, who lives near and regularly walks through downtown, said concerns over new bars and restaurants are overblown.
“My wife, my friends — they consider me a grumpy old man,” Allen said. “If anybody out there could find problems with what’s going on in downtown, it would be me.
“But there’s no need for this moratorium,” he added.
Dennis Holz said a moratorium is a much-needed “timeout” while the city mulls over land-use changes that could be used to curb the number of bars that pop up.
Mayor Teresa Barth said she’s inclined to support a citywide moratorium.
Barth noted bars represent a significant chunk of Encinitas’ economy. But that should be balanced with community character. For most in Encinitas, the latter is more important, she believes.
“There’s an awful lot of people in this community that want to preserve it as a laid-back beach town,” Barth said.
City Planning Director Jeff Murphy said that four businesses currently have liquor-license applications. The late-night moratorium due to be voted on next week would affect three of the businesses. If passed, it would essentially freeze the applications until the moratorium ends.
Down the line, City Council might also consider midnight closures for bars and stricter guidelines for liquor-license applications.