September 28, 2010 |

PA Senate committee hears testimony on what can be done about liquor license saturation in So. Side

Members of the Pennsylvania Senate Law and Justice Committee came to South Side on September to learn more about liquor license saturation and the economic impact of liquor on communities.

Committee Chair Sen. John Pippy was joined by Sen. Wayne Fontana at the hearing. In addition, Sen. Jay Costa Jr. and State Rep. Harry Readshaw joined the panel to listen to those invited to provide testimony.

Invited to testify were: District Three Councilman Bruce Kraus; Jane Melchior, director of the Bureau of Licensing for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board; Major John P. Lutz, director of the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement of the Pennsylvania State Police; Rick Belloli, executive director of the South Side Local Development Company; Aggie Brose, Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation; and, Becky Rodgers, executive director of Neighbors in the Strip.

Sen. Pippy opened the hearing, which was requested by Sen. Fontana, by explaining the purpose of the hearing was to gather information on the way to finding a balance between the economic impact of liquor sales in community and the safety of the neighborhoods. He said the problem wasn't limited to South Side and they are starting to see problems to different degrees all across the commonwealth.

He noted the problems with alcohol and crowds have been identified and discussed in the media and it was his hope the hearing would offer "real possible solutions."

Councilman Kraus began his testimony with a brief history, saying as a child the "insider joke" of the neighborhood was that South Side was landscaped with a church and a bar on every corner. After the closing of the steel mills in the neighborhood local residents welcomed the new economy of Carson Street with its restaurants, art and antique galleries and taverns.

He said as early as 1990 the South Side Planning Forum's Neighborhood Plan took note of the increased impact of being a regional entertainment destination with increased disturbances in the neighborhood caused by nighttime entertainment patrons and their at times irresponsible and criminal behavior.

The councilman continued on by saying in 1996 then Councilman Gene Ricciardi tried unsuccessfully to get legislation that would regulate alcohol license transfers with a municipality. At the time, liquor licenses within the South Side Flats (an area from Station Square to the SouthSide Works) totaled 77, 14 years later that total is now at 147.

"So now living with the effects of alcohol saturation has become a way of life for those who live and work in the South Side with an ever increasing erosion of residential and responsible business quality of life," he said.

He told the Senate Committee members that for a minimum of 104 times a year, the barroom capacity of South Side reaches as many as 22,500 patrons. The number represents four bar stools for every resident over the age of 21 in the neighborhood.

"So when do we arrive at last call," Councilman Kraus asked. "Where is the ‘little policeman' on the shoulder of the PLCB whispering responsibly in their ear, ‘Party's over'?"

Among the concerns he expressed were providing local public safety services is a challenge thought Pennsylvania Liquor Control. Within the Western Pennsylvania PLCB sector there are 4,500 alcohol licenses with approximately 1,250 of those licenses in Allegheny County. The PLCB has only 22 agents on staff to investigate claims and provide enforcement for the sector.

The councilman continued on to explain that the bar scene and its high incidence of nuisance crimes has placed a constant strain on public safety services in the council district; Services that are also needed in other neighborhoods in the district.

Councilman Kraus offered a three-prong solution to the problems:

In cooperation with the city's commitment from the police department to better communicate and educate bar owners about their responsibility concerning alcohol sales, the councilman asked for ongoing educational intervention by PA Liquor Enforcement agents and swift consequences for those in violation of the laws.

The second prong would be for city council review of intra-municipal license transfers in Cities of the Second Class. The local review would permit community stakeholders to have a voice in whether a license should be transferred.

His third step would be to adopt Responsible Hospitality Institute practices. In 2008 Councilman Kraus' office released a report on the nighttime economy of the neighborhood and recommendations to "bring order, calm to chaos and vibrancy to nightlife with minimal negative impact."

Ms. Melchior's stated purpose at the hearing was to provide "existing statutory and regulatory framework under which a location is licensed to sell alcohol and the limited circumstances under which the board can refuse a license application."

The PLCB must refuse a new liquor license application if it finds approval will "adversely affect the welfare, health peace and moral of the neighborhood" within a 500 foot radius of the premises, she explained. However, the board could also refuse the application if the proposed location with within 300 feet of a church, hospital, charitable institution, school or public playground or within 200 feet of another liquor license.

For the PLCB to refuse an application on the grounds that granting the license would have an adverse effect on the neighborhood, the board would have to prove granting the license would have an adverse effect on the neighborhood.

"Our courts have repeatedly held that the mere fact that the applicant will be selling alcohol does not establish that there will be an adverse effect on the neighborhood," she said.

She said it is possible for the PLCB to enter into "conditional licensing" agreements with applicants. As an example, the PLCB and the licensee can agree to completion of additional training, use of ID scanners, increased security or limited hours of operation. The agreement is binding unless both parties agree to terminate the agreement or until the license is transferred to a new owner for use at a new location.

"Finally, if [the] committee is weighing whether to delegate to municipalities the authority to decide whether licenses should be transferred within portions of their boundaries, it may wish to keep in mind that in the case of Wings Field Preservation Associates, LP v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Transportation our Commonwealth Court held that conferring unfettered discretion to a municipality, without providing standards to guide and restrain municipalities in their decisions, was an improper delegation of legislative power, and was therefore deemed unconstitutional," she said. "Thus, if certain municipalities are to be given a discretionary say in the licensing process, how that discretion is to be used should be clearly set forth."

Major Lutz began his testimony by saying although they were there to discuss the role of the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement in South Side, many of the problems in the neighborhood are not unique. In particular, many other neighborhoods throughout the state that had at one time been economically depressed and are now experiencing revitalization through the popularity of liquor licensed establishments are experiencing similar problems.

He said the PLCE investigates all complaints received and provided not only routine enforcement, but also additional enforcement for special events such as the St. Patrick's Day Parade, Super Bowl, Thanksgiving weekend and even "holiday bar hops."

Since 2007 the PLCE has issued 65 citations to 31 different license holders in South Side. Violations included for loudspeakers, happy hour, sales to minors, after hours and sales to visibly intoxicated persons. They also conducted 14 age compliance checks during the same period.

Major Lutz said the PLCE has been working with Pittsburgh Police since the late 1980s to combine resources and the agreement was formalized in 2007 with a Memorandum of Understanding.

"To bureau is not staffed, nor is it the mission of the bureau to enforce what occurs outside of licenses establishments," he said. "Many of the problems that occur in popular restaurant or club districts are simply not liquor law violations and therefore are not under the purview of BLCE."

He went on to explain many problems associated with bars and entertainment districts are not liquor law violations. As an example he said if the licensee hasn't served a minor or a visibly intoxicated person, violations committed by a person outside of a bar such as public urination, criminal mischief or disorderly conduct are generally not violations on the part of the licensee.

"If you're getting a lot of call about problems inside a particular bar, can we assume they're responsible for a lot of the problems outside the bars," Sen. Fontana questioned.

"If we're not focusing on the bad ones, we're doing something wrong," Major Lutz replied. He explained that fines range from $50 to $1000 for violations and $1000 to $5000 for enhanced violations such as service to visibly intoxicated persons or service to minors.

He said most fines are $100 to $200 for each violation and should go up for each additional violation, but it was up to the judge.

When asked if it was the responsibility of the PLCE to educate the bar owners as to what is their responsibility, the major replied attendance is not mandatory.

"Some of the owners that need it the most don't attend," he added.

Sen. Costa wanted to know if there were any nuisance bars in South Side. Although the major didn't know if there were, he said he didn't think it was any individual bar, but the collective atmosphere.

He added they are "fully aware" of the problems on South Side and have told their officers to strictly enforce the laws.

"Local police do have the ability to enforce certain aspects of the liquor code," he said.

Mr. Belloli began his testimony by saying there are nearly two-dozen types of PLCB licenses available, but there is no license that differentiates a bar from a restaurant.

"Bars, whose primary business purpose is to pour alcohol, have markedly different economic impacts upon a community than restaurants, whose primary business purpose is to serve food," he said.

He noted of the 132 licenses in South Side, 97 are restaurant licenses with 85 of those currently active. In examining the businesses with liquor licenses, they found that 65 percent of the licenses belong to businesses whose primary purpose is to serve alcohol, not food.

Citing the Pennsylvania Code, including the PLCB Code, Mr. Belloli pointed out there are a number of areas that differentiate between bars and restaurants such as for Sunday sales, economic development and to permit a bar to allow smoking on premises.

He also said currently the PLCB Code does provide at least one provision unique to Second Class cities, of which Pittsburgh is the only one in the state. The provision has to do with selling alcohol with reference to conducting regattas.

Mr. Belloli pointed out the PLCB Code establishes a per capita license limit per county of one license for every 3,000 people. Given that Allegheny County has a population of approximately 1.3 million people; he said there should be a total of 433 licenses in the county.

However, he provided statistics showing Allegheny County has 2958 Liquor Licenses, 1669 of which are classified as restaurant licenses.

“Thirty-four percent, or 1013, of the total licenses in Allegheny Country are located within the City of Pittsburgh with 628 classified as restaurant licenses, he continued. “And specifically, the 15203 zip code, which includes the South Side Flats and South Side Slopes, houses 13 percent of the city's total with 132 licenses. Clearly South Side with 132 licenses exceeds any measure of saturation considered.”

The density of liquor licenses in the city amounts to seven for every 3000 residents and in South Side it's 53 for every 3000 residents.

Mr. Belloli asked for the committee to consider recommending the Pennsylvania State Liquor Code be amended in three ways: 

• To create separate definitions for restaurant/eating establishments and bars.

• To allow Cities of the Second Class to enact zoning that would permit distinguishing between bars and restaurants; and,

• To allow Cities of the second Class to enact zoning that would permit distinguishing between bars and restaurants and permit limiting the number of bars in areas where the saturation level exceeds three times approved state levels.

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