Hundreds of hours of discussion. Six months of planning. Four "yeas." And just one topic: how to control alcohol sales.
The Murrieta City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night, with Councilwoman Kelly Bennett absent, to approve an update to its aging alcohol code. Council members said that in developing the code they were balancing the need to attract new businesses to the City with their duty to protect children from exposure to alcohol.
"We need to balance the community standards with the ability to bring good jobs to the community," Councilman Rick Gibbs told the small crowd who gathered at the meeting, which ran until almost midnight.
The new code, which has been under review by the Council and Planning Commission since November 2010, cuts off alcohol sales for local businesses between midnight and 6 a.m., among other new requirements. It will also give the police department the authority to revoke a businesses' alcohol sale permit if they fail to follow City guidelines.
The code also requires employees who sell alcohol to attend a government-run training course within 30 days of being hired.
"Right now we have a whole series of businesses that are not required to abide by any local regulations," City Planner Cynthia Kinser told the Council.
The new code will make the training requirement and restricted sale hours standard conditions that all businesses would be required to know--they would have to review those conditions before applying for a permit--and abide by to sell alcohol in the City.
Other standard requirements, like mandatory outdoor lighting and a ban on advertising alcohol sales outside the store, were already in place under the old code.
Two restaurants were causing the most problems for City police officers seeking to enforce the alcohol code, Kinser reported. The new code cuts off "happy hour" at 8 p.m. for local restaurants, and restricts the sale of alcohol after their kitchen closes.
"The issue is to make sure alcohol consumption is timely with the eating of food," Kinser said.
Patrons at the one bar in town, Joannie's Cantina, located in the Historic Downtown area, rarely cause problems for City police officers, she said.
Council members rigorously questioned Kinser on the code's distance requirement, which bans alcohol sales within 600 feet of sensitive areas like schools, parks and churches. They expressed concern that the distance requirement was arbitrary, and would cause problems for local businesses.
"If that's the only thing we're looking at, we're screwed," Councilman Doug McAllister said at the meeting. "What I don't want to see us get to is the layering of approvals that is going to make it harder for us to do our job of business attraction."
A split public response
City residents who spoke to the Council about the new alcohol code were split.
Some local business owners expressed concern that the ordinance went too far in restricting alcohol sales, and made it more difficult to attract new businesses to the area.
The owner of the Orchard shopping center said the alcohol code was driving away gas stations and set unnecessary limits on how movie theaters could sell alcohol.
The 600-foot distance requirement would only drive away business, the owner, Allan Davis, said.
"Its not implemented in many areas," he said, referring to the area around Murrieta Mesa High School, where three businesses sell alcohol. "And it has economic impact on real properties."
But, without the 600-foot requirement, City schools would be overburdened in trying to keep their students safe, said Kris Thomasian, a board member for the Murrieta Valley Unified School District.
"Any time anything happens regarding our students, they call the school district, and our administrators need to go take care of whatever's happening," Thomasian told the Council. "In these days of budget cuts, we're looking at our staff investing a lot of time off campus dealing with these community issues."
Tuesday's vote means the ordinance goes through two more readings, and will then become law.