The Encinitas bar scene has been causing trouble for some time. A handful of businesses are serving alcohol in an irresponsible way — a way that promotes public drunkenness, DUI-related incidents and a host of other problems. It all happens in the evening, after 10 p.m.
That’s when a series of what looked like upscale restaurants completely change their way of business.
It’s called “Morphing.” It refers to a restaurant, which has an emphasis on food during the daytime but turns itself in a bar or club in the evening, relying heavily on alcohol sales to generate revenue. It’s an entirely different business model. The kitchen is closed, a dance floor is opened up and entertainment brought in, often a small band or a DJ.
Of course this causes problems; businesses that rely so heavily on alcohol sales always cause problems, and many of them spill out into the surrounding community. Public intoxication is perhaps the most common, with young people who’ve had too much to drink getting into fights. Nuisance-related activities like public urination as well as more serious crime have also become more prevalent. And all of this generates more police calls for service, tying up law enforcement resources, and making them less available to local residents who might need help.
Many cities require businesses that choose this model to purchase a special permit, which brings in the revenue needed to police the operation. However, in the case of morphing, the establishments get around the law by claiming they are still restaurants, which usually don’t have these kinds of problems. So the city is left without sufficient resources to respond.
But there is a solution. It’s called a Deemed Approved Ordinance, a new kind of law that establishes a set of responsible operating standards that all alcohol retailers have to follow in order to stay in business. This approach has been successful in many cities in California, most recently in El Cajon where problems stemming from liquor and convenience stores have declined substantially. According to the El Cajon Police Department, arrests for public drunkenness dropped 35 percent, and arrests for drinking in public dropped 26 percent.
Actually, Encinitas was considering this type of ordinance last year but it was stymied by the local hospitality association. Not wanting to offend the business community, the city backed off from the ordinance and instituted some half-way measures. But it’s been almost a year now, and according to many residents I have spoken with, the problems have not gone away.
A lot of people live downtown and they’re concerned about the long-term consequences. Other cities with morphing issues have seen an eventual deterioration set in, with urban blight and economic decline. No one wants that for the Encinitas, not local residents, not the business community.
Let’s take a lesson from these other cities. Let’s ask our city council to implement a Deemed Approved Ordinance. We’ve waited long enough; the time for action is now.
Teresa Barth is a former Encinitas mayor and councilmember.