In a unanimous vote last night, Long Beach City Council approved a four-month moratorium on the issuance of new exemptions from the conditional use permits (CUPs) for businesses selling alcohol in the city, citing a need to better define some of the qualities that a business must meet before being exempt from the ordinance.
Currently, the city’s zoning code allows for exemptions from acquiring a permit for grocery stores over 20,000 square feet, department stores and florists that sell alcohol as an accessory, businesses located more than 500 feet from residential use and other “existing legal nonconforming issues”. However, the ordinance doesn’t differentiate between beer and wine sales and the sale of hard alcohol and doesn’t list the reasons why certain exemptions exist.
Ninth District Councilman Rex Richardson, one of the three council members that brought the motion to the floor, said that the pause button needs to be hit and the topic revisited given the negative consequences that unchecked alcohol sales can have on a community.
“Over years of having this contemporary process, a number of exemptions have come into place that have created sort of a patchwork of holes in this CUP process,” Richardson said. “So although there are a number of exemptions that might’ve made sense on a case by case basis, my concern is that we haven’t taken a holistic approach at these exemptions.”
Two of the exemptions that Richardson referenced were the ones given to grocery stores and restaurants that serve alcohol with meals. Those don’t need to be reevaluated according to Richardson, but the others do in order for the council to be able to provide a “fair, clean process” in the administering of conditional use permits.
Director of Development Services Amy Bodek agreed that with the proliferation of smaller, more urban grocery stores and the seeming blurring of lines of what a grocery store actually is, a more concrete definition needs to be given with a corresponding square footage necessary to qualify for an exemption. She pointed out that Fresh & Easy, although clearly a grocery store, doesn’t qualify for the exemption because it’s square footage falls below the current threshold.
“I think the issue that we’re looking at is stand alone grocery stores versus general merchandising stores that also carry groceries,” Bodek said. “I think that’s going to be the distinction that has blurred over time in our definition of a grocery store. We do really need to look at the overall definition of what a grocery store is versus a department store, versus a general merchandising store and then really try to determine what square footages we should be using in applying these exemptions.
The moratorium will not affect businesses already operating with an exemption from the permit, only those that start the application process after the moratorium commences. According to Bodek, the city had no current applications for an exemption from the conditional use permit as of Monday.
This was an important clarification, as Fifth District Councilwoman Stacy Mungo brought up the fiscal impact such a moratorium could have on businesses. Mungo also pointed out that one of the few sales tax revenue percentages the city meets without any leakage is through liquor, and given that the city is headed toward tight financial times, the moratorium might need to be viewed through a more fiscal lens.
“I just don’t want to have a disadvantage to our Long Beach stores that have national contracts because of a short-term moratorium,”
The motion passed with an 8-0 vote and will temporarily suspend the issuance of any new exemptions until after the 4-month window in which city staff will review the process.
Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal said that in general, moratoriums have served a good purpose for the city as it will allow for a review of the ordinance without the outside noise of a crush of applicants trying to beat the system at the last minute.
“So, just purely from my experience in issues that we’ve dealt with and brought forward, the moratorium has been helpful because then there isn’t a flood of applications, flood of activity, there isn’t an attempt to game the system in that short time period,” Lowenthal said. “Not to say that that would happen, but it does obviate the possibility of that happening.”