Hard to swallow: Council encounters roadblock in push to restrict local liquor sales

In early June, Mountain View Community Council members sat in a basement meeting room at the neighborhood community center and cast a unanimous vote.

Nearly a month later, MVCC President Daniel George received an email that seemed to nullify the entire effort.

The resolution approved by the council June 9 asked the Anchorage Assembly to delay action on new conditional use permits for two Mountain View liquor stores. After ongoing troubles with alcohol-associated issues in the neighborhood, community leaders hoped special restrictions on the area’s two Brown Jug stores could help curb the problems. Faced with a shrinking window of opportunity for public comment, the June resolution aimed to buy more time for community members to address the situation.

But after a “research project” conducted by various municipal officials procured a decades-old special zoning exception for the Bragaw Street liquor store, on July 1 council leaders were told there’s little they could do to impact operations at the neighborhood alcohol retailer.

They didn’t take the news lying down.

“This is a very disappointing and discouraging development for the residents of Mountain View,” wrote George in an email to Assemblyman Patrick Flynn.

Earlier that afternoon, Flynn had forwarded George a string of emails between himself and Municipal Attorney Dennis Wheeler. In them, the attorney described a special project involving alcohol conditional use permits.

“Essentially, we’ve been trying to locate old approvals so that current owners need not go through the process of re-applying for a conditional use permit that was conceivably granted for a certain property many years ago and, but for our bad record-keeping, should remain authorized under that old permit,” Wheeler wrote.

According to the municipal attorney, the work was “producing results.”

Wheeler said municipal officials had located an old conditional use permit for the Brown Jug liquor store near the intersection of Mountain View Drive and Bragaw Street; the store across the street from Clark Middle School. The discovery of the old permit — granted in 1980 and still effective under municipal code — made it unnecessary for the Bragaw Brown Jug to acquire a new conditional use permit unless the use had changed enough to trigger a modification process, Wheeler wrote. He told Flynn the Assembly should consider nullifying a recent ordinance that required a new permit for the Mountain View store.

And, Wheeler wrote, it would be legally problematic to impose special restrictions on the retailer unless there were conditions warranting the move.

“There should be a direct connect between a condition imposed on a property or owner that is tailored to a specific need or problem,” the attorney wrote.

George said he took exception to that.

For council members, community leaders and dozens of students at Clark Middle School, the conditions have been strikingly clear.

“We as residents are befuddled as to why our school’s students have to so heavily interact with (well documented) fornicating, defecating, and inappropriately behaving inebriates at our bus stops and on our supposedly ‘safe routes to school,'” George told Flynn in response to the municipal attorney’s findings. “Why should this operator not have conditions at least publicly considered which address this very special circumstance?”

This isn’t the first public effort inspired by Mountain View’s drinking-related difficulties.

Earlier this year, state Rep. Geran Tarr sponsored a bill increasing the mandatory buffer zone between schools and liquor stores. House Bill 336 would have increased the minimum distance from 200 to 400 feet, and Tarr cited the situation outside Clark Middle School in her official sponsor statement for the legislation.

“There is no quick fix for the social symptoms of alcoholism,” the representative wrote at the time. “This bill is just one small but helpful step in addressing alcoholism and the problems it causes.”

While the bill ultimately ran out of time, Tarr continues to work with MVCC to address the neighborhood’s concerns with alcohol.

On any given afternoon, people sit — visibly intoxicated — at the bus stop in front of the middle school. Others drink from brown paper bags or mini shooters of hard alcohol or water bottles filled with booze as school kids pass by on their way home after class. Just up the street, people often lie passed out on picnic tables in Davis Park or sit on the benches and argue with angry, slurred words.

It’s a situation that continues to perplex the neighborhood. It’s the reason why, in October 2013, the community council requested public hearings regarding the conditional use permits granted to the two Mountain View Brown Jugs.

Following the council’s request, the Assembly passed a resolution requiring the two stores acquire new conditional use permits and giving them 180 days to operate under the Assembly’s conditional non-objection. During that period, the community council hoped to work with the neighborhood business to find a way to fight problems with public inebriation. One idea pitched repeatedly by various community members involved restricting the sale of liquor prior to 3 p.m. on school days. Longtime Mountain View resident Kelly McDonald said he’d like to see the Bragaw Street Brown Jug relocate to Glenn Square, a little further away from the middle school and the busiest bus route in town.

Currently, the two neighborhood liquor stores are located within blocks of each other, several hundred middle schoolers, a half dozen bus stops and several housing facilities for Alaskans battling chronic alcoholism.

But as the 180-day period of conditional non-objection drew to a close, community council leaders said Brown Jug management had been less than responsive to attempts to discuss the issue. Pending a public hearing and the council’s August meeting, the MVCC had hoped to delay permit renewal for the neighborhood store. George said they believed they’d have the chance to weigh in on the issue.

As it turns out, following the latest discovery by the municipal attorney’s office, the whole process may have been an exercise in futility.

It’s a frustrating development for Mountain View locals struggling to tamp down neighborhood alcohol issues. George said it’s especially vexing for those who hoped for a public forum on the issue.

“I hope that there will be some meaningful way in which our residents’ voices can be heard and acted on,” the community council president told the Assembly chairman.

While local lawmakers may not be able to impose specific restrictions in connection with Brown Jug’s conditional use permits, Flynn said the council could alternatively seek to follow in the footsteps of Downtown Anchorage, where all liquor stores are required to observe rules above and beyond the city norm.

According to municipal code, retailers within the boundaries of the Downtown Community Council District are forbidden from selling cheap wine or six-packs of beer that cost less than $6. They aren’t allowed to sell bottles of liquor smaller than 750 milliliters, or liquor that costs less than $10 per bottle. Furthermore, they’re required to place identifying stickers on all individually sold containers.

That could be an option, Flynn said, but it may not pass muster. The circumstances in Mountain View are slightly different, the Assemblyman told the community council president.

Other lawmakers, like Tarr, said the discussion is far from over.

And George, who’s spent months trying to tackle the neighborhood’s alcohol troubles via public process and business regulation, said he hopes to find another opportunity to effect change.

“Surely, this cannot be the closing of this book,” he told Flynn. “If so, then we are left with only drastic measures and deep frustration.”

Brown Jug could not be reached for comment.

 

1 reply »

  1. It’s the same story, though written much better, that people have been writing since the dawn of societies: “Can’t We All Just Get Along”. The liquor stores and their locations aren’t the problem, the drunks are. People of their ilk always will be a problematic for all the rest. Best that we realize their plight is no disease, but rather the culmination of choices. At that point they may need to “heal thy self” rather than limp along on our crutch. Thanks for the well put together piece. When are other reporters going to start writing well.

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