Council supports new downtown alcohol regulations

ENCINITAS — Encinitas officials took a major step toward adopting new regulations aimed at cracking down on what residents perceive is an out-of-control nightlife scene along Coast Highway 101.

The City Council at its April 19 meeting unanimously approved a suite of recommendations relating to the city’s alcohol serving establishments, including the creation of a so-called “deemed approved” ordinance, which staff will bring back for the council’s adoption at a later date.

“Regardless of the number in the staff report, we have a problem with compatibility of downtown,” Tasha Boerner Horvath said. “What we want is business to be… compatible with the neighborhood.”

Deemed approved ordinances give cities more latitude in enforcing nuisance rules and revoking business licenses on establishments that are subject to less restrictions due to their grandfathered status.

The city is looking at modeling its ordinance after the city of Ventura, which created an alcohol services division and adopted its new regulations in 2005.

Additionally, the council also recommended creating an ordinance that regulates party buses and adopting city staff’s recommendations, including requiring food service during the same time alcohol is served, barring restaurants from having their lines queue on public streets and sidewalks and cutting off alcohol from being served after 10 p.m. unless permitted by the city.

In the case of Encinitas, the ordinance would target all alcohol serving establishments that are open after 10 p.m., or 41 of the city’s 131 alcohol serving establishments, making them subject to tougher noise, trash and other nuisance standards.

Encinitas considered a deemed approved ordinance in 2014, but opted to take a proactive enforcement approach to the downtown bar scene.

Since then, the city has stepped up enforcement, including increasing the sheriff’s overtime budget by $100,000, which has allowed deputies to target downtown and as a result lower calls for service in the area.

But some residents and groups — including the Self Realization Fellowship on downtown’s southern edge — have said that the city hasn’t gone far enough and rowdy behavior tied to the bar scene still is an issue.

The council’s 5-0 vote came after residents and restaurant owners clashed during an hourlong public comment session.

Residents, including several who live in downtown, said the proposed actions were long overdue to rein in the nightlife scene in downtown. They told stories of restaurants essentially morphing into bars after 10 p.m., party buses flooding downtown with drunken visitors and idling trucks in residential streets, and loud behavior until 2 a.m. at some of the more notorious locations, comparing the scene to that in Pacific Beach, which is notorious for the issues stemming from rowdy bars and restaurants.

Residents said they weren’t opposed to restaurants downtown, but did oppose those that behaved like bars.

“Encinitas has always been a good place and a safe place to raise a family, and a place we are all proud to call home,” resident Margaret Wolfe said. “But the ball is now in your court as to whether this Encinitas becomes a distant memory or the blueprint that preserves the character of our land and the health of our community.

“History is repeating itself, and the future of the city is being called into question,” Wolfe continued. “The allure of commercial profit of those bused in for a good time goes toe to toe with the health and safety of residents who want Encinitas to be more than a good place to party. Is this the reputation we want for our city, is this the legacy we want to leave to our children?”

Residents applauded as one by one, they echoed each other’s sentiments.

“We are a party place and I am sad about it,” said Katie Poponyac, an Olivenhain resident who owns a home downtown. “It’s fun to have activity downtown but it’s not always the right kind of activity.”

Restaurant owners, including the owner of the Union Kitchen and Tap, said they thought a deemed approved ordinance and ordinance that would regulate party buses were overkill, and that the council’s previous direction in 2014 has been effective in reducing many of the issues in downtown.

“We don’t see the problems that residents are bringing up,” said Eric Leitstein, owner of Union and the co-owner of The Fish Shop, also in downtown. “All of the regulatory agencies…they are not reporting significant problems, so we don’t understand why a deemed approved ordinance is necessary.

“We see ourselves as a restaurant, we have a full menu and we have good food, but we are demonized because we sell alcohol,” Leitstein said.

Council members questioned why restaurateurs would oppose the ordinance if they were in compliance.

“If you follow all the rules and are not a problem, what are you afraid of a deemed approved ordinance for?” Councilman Mark Muir asked Leitstein, to which the audience applauded.

“You can get unwarranted complaints,” Leitstein said. “It’s another regulatory agency that I don’t think is necessary because they are already in place.”

But city officials also signaled that they want the ordinance to differentiate between coastal Encinitas from New Encinitas and Olivenhain, which don’t have a number of places that stay open after 10 p.m. and where residents have wanted to see additional offerings.

“I don’t think we want to limit saturation by limiting full-service bars in New Encinitas,” Mayor Catherine Blakespear said. “If we want restaurants downtown, it might be OK to have a full-service bar or a tasting room along El Camino Real if it’s in the appropriate location.”

The council’s vote also calls for staff to craft language for the city code that differentiates bars from restaurants with food and to draft an entertainment license similar to the one Carlsbad recently adopted.

Staff will also return with recommendations on increasing the initial fine for restaurants in violation of city regulations. Boerner Horvath proposed raising the fine from its current $100 to $1,000 for the first violation, but other council members said they felt it was too steep of an increase.

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