The Public Eye

Liquor licenses in Sacramento area exceed limits as leaders exploit loopholes

ABC limits the number of off sale liquor licenses to one per every 2,500 residents and on sale licenses to one per every 2,000 residents.  However, local authorities can bypass those restrictions by making a finding that "public convenience and necessity" is served by issuing a license.
ABC limits the number of off sale liquor licenses to one per every 2,500 residents and on sale licenses to one per every 2,000 residents. However, local authorities can bypass those restrictions by making a finding that "public convenience and necessity" is served by issuing a license.

Many businesses sell alcohol in a 4-square-mile section of Arden Arcade: grocery stores, bars, restaurants, pharmacies, gas stations and liquor stores, including two superstores, Total Wine and BevMo.

In the area between Hurley Way and Auburn Boulevard, 92 businesses are licensed to sell alcohol, even though state law calls for no more than 49.

Communities across California have exceeded state limits for the number of businesses selling alcohol, raising questions about the approval process for liquor licenses. A Sacramento Bee analysis of data from the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control found that 49 of 58 counties have exceeded limits for on-sale licenses, off-sale licenses or both. On-sale licenses cover bars and restaurants where alcohol is consumed on site; off-sale covers stores where alcohol is bought for consumption elsewhere.

In the capital region, El Dorado, Yolo and Placer counties have exceeded at least one of the limits, which allow one on-sale license for every 2,000 residents and one off-sale license for every 2,500 residents.

Sacramento County is below the limits overall, but many communities in the county are above them. Sacramento, for instance, has been under a state moratorium for off-sale beer and wine licenses since 2011.

The city, however, has regularly approved such licenses during the moratorium. That’s because communities can exceed the population-based quotas for liquor licenses by finding that a new liquor license would serve “public convenience or necessity,” even when under a state moratorium. Localities differ in how they make the decision. In Sacramento, the police chief decides, and his decision can be appealed to the Planning Commission. In Sacramento County, the Board of Supervisors makes the decision, based partly on a recommendation from the sheriff.

The reluctance of local officials to deny liquor licenses has led some communities to question the process. Arden Arcade residents were highly critical of a recent decision by the Board of Supervisors to approve a liquor license for a WinCo Foods going in at Watt and El Camino avenues. The neighborhood was already above its license quota and has had problems with crime, panhandling and other quality-of-life issues.

“Where is the line?” said Cesar Castaneda, president of the Country Club Alliance of Neighborhoods, which covers Arden Arcade. “Why do we have these rules if they’re not enforced? The local officials just want the tax revenue.”

In going against the majority of the board on the WinCo license last year, Supervisor Phil Serna also questioned the licensing process, saying the county needs to revisit the issue since state limits seem to have no meaning anymore.

ABC spokesman John Carr said the department “is aware there is undue (license) concentration in some communities in California.” He said the department works closely with local governments to try to reduce problems. An undue concentration of liquor sales can “increase calls for local police services to address alcohol-related problems such as public drunkenness, noise and other possible problems that may negatively impact a community,” he said.

Sacramento County sheriff’s Deputy Chuck Price, one of two part-time deputies assigned to liquor license enforcement in the unincorporated areas, said stores selling alcohol can be magnets for nuisance crimes, such as public intoxication and urination. He said stores selling single cans of beer in low-income neighborhoods are more likely to have such problems.

“Alcohol can play a role in any crime,” he said. “It lowers your inhibition and may make you more willing to get into a fight or other trouble.”

In 2006, a Bee computer analysis found that liquor stores and certain crimes in Sacramento go hand in hand. More than 60 percent of the city’s robberies and drug crimes from February 2004 through June 2005 occurred within easy walking distance of stores that sell alcohol.

In 1994, a Los Angeles lawmaker said higher concentrations of liquor stores in low-income neighborhoods were contributing to high crime rates, leading him to successfully propose a law that restricted the number of off-sale beer and wine licenses available, joining on-sale alcohol licenses as having a state-set limit, according to a legislative committee summary of the bill.

The law also gave local government, instead of ABC, the authority to determine whether public convenience or necessity should override the population quotas. Local governments were better staffed and in a better position than the ABC, the argument went.

Sacramento rarely turns down liquor license requests, said Joy Patterson, a principal planner with the city. She could recall only one recent example: an application for a license at a Meadowview Road convenience store. The city Planning Commission last month upheld a decision by the Police Department to reject the application because of high crime and existing liquor licenses in the area.

Sacramento County also rarely turns down requests, preferring to work with businesses that might have problems, Deputy Price said. In the case of the recent WinCo Foods application, the Sheriff’s Department wanted rules against loitering and when liquor could be sold, among other things.

Sacramento and other local governments have a more formal process for making such requirements. They require businesses wanting a liquor license to get conditional-use permits, which state that liquor can be sold only if certain conditions are met.

County planning officials proposed a similar requirement in 2013, but it was shelved in the face of opposition from local merchants. Community Development Director Lori Moss said the county has been working with an industry group to find a workable plan to bring to supervisors later this year. In addition to creating a more formal review process to create requirements when needed, the new proposal will include an annual license-inspection program bolstered by newly hired sheriff’s deputies, she said.

Call The Bee’s Brad Branan, (916) 321-1065. Follow him on Twitter @BradB_at_SacBee.

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