4/23/17: Alcohol Problems Downtown Lead to New Rules

This week the City Council approved new rules to manage the negative impacts of bars in our coastal downtown, including excessive noise, public intoxication, idling party buses, and other nuisances.

For many years there has been a steady drum-beat of complaints from residents about the changing atmosphere downtown, particularly late on weekend nights.

I’m grateful for the vibrancy in our downtown, but we don’t want to go over a tipping point where the negatives outweigh the positives. The right mix of shops, restaurants, office space and residents is critical to a healthy downtown.

We’ve tried various lower-level measures to address the problems stemming from some alcohol-serving establishments, including more law enforcement and code enforcement, public education and better training requirements for those serving alcohol. In 2014, on a split 3-2 vote (before I was in office) the City Council decided NOT to adopt what’s called a “deemed approved” ordinance. This week, three years later, we followed the recent recommendation of our Planning Commission and unanimously voted to approve a “deemed-approved” ordinance and other regulations.

Supporting these recommendations was not difficult for me. Not only have we been only somewhat successful with our past efforts, but I was becoming increasingly concerned about a growing number of requests for new or expanded alcohol permits downtown. We needed to update our approach and policies.

So what does “deemed approved” mean?

The deemed approved ordinance is a way of regulating businesses that are grandfathered-in under older regulations. It involves defining public nuisances, for example disturbing the peace, illegal drug activity, public drunkenness, harassment of passersby, prostitution, public urination, theft, assaults, vandalism, littering, loitering, graffiti, illegal parking, excessive loud noises (especially in the late night or early morning hours), traffic violations or lewd conduct. If a business is creating the environment that leads to these nuisances then the business’ permit is no longer “deemed approved” and they can be forced to get a newer permit that has stricter standards and penalties.

If a business is following all the rules — and the vast majority are — then there’s nothing for them to fear from a deemed approved ordinance.

It’s clear that the problems don’t come from restaurants offering beer and wine with meals. As new restaurants open we don’t intend to restrict their ability to sell alcohol. The problems come when restaurants stop serving food and morph into bars and dance club until 2 a.m. and the consequent environment and noise that is created downtown at these hours and into the morning. The new regulations will establish noise thresholds, define what would be considered an over-concentration of alcohol serving establishments, have stiffer fines for violations like over-occupancy (right now the first violation is a $100 fine), and regulate idling party buses and the long queuing lines that block sidewalks. Right now the Planning Commission and staff don’t have the tools to have an accurate picture of whether a new business will operate more like a restaurant or more like a bar.

The hard work and dedication of the Encinitas Citizens Committee, Planning Commission, professional planning staff and acting Planning Director Steve Chase, and our City Council colleague Tasha Boerner Horvath who brought this up on the Planning Commission before she was elected to the City Council, deserve recognition in helping us arrive at meaningful solutions to these problems.

Here are two articles from local papers about the issue:
Encinitas to Rein in Downtown Bars from The San Diego Union-Tribune
Encinitas Pushes Forward on Bar Reforms from the Encinitas Advocate

Our 2017 Planning Session Helps the Council Define Priorities

The City Council and staff devoted seven hours last Tuesday to hashing through our priorities in anticipation of the next two year budget cycle. We focused on the areas that need attention and did not discuss areas that we already do well as a city, for example, maintaining a safe community or being committed to fiscal responsibility.

A main goal of this effort is to align the staff’s time and energy with the Council’s priorities. Strategic planning also reinforces to the elected officials that we shouldn’t try to “boil the ocean”, i.e. spread ourselves so thin that we don’t accomplish anything.

Here are our top four actionable priorities:

  1. Attain a Legally Compliant Housing Element (this relates to our failure to have a housing plan that complies with state laws, resulting in the city fighting ongoing housing lawsuits)
  2. Improve Connectivity and Mobility for all Users (relates to improving streets, trails and bike paths)
  3. Make the Rail Corridor a Better Neighbor (quiet the train horns, improve safety and have more legal crossings)
  4. Promote “Green” Initiatives (includes working on an enforceable Climate Action Plan, exploring Community Choice Energy, protecting and enhancing the tree canopy and plant palette, and much more).

Strategic planning can seem tedious at times but it’s very important for the City Council to speak with one voice in directing our professional staff, particularly so our budget can revolve around our priorities.

Other Recent News

The results of the “2017 We All Count” assessment of those living unsheltered on the street was announced. Noteworthy stats include:

  • 9,000 people in the county are homeless, a 5 percent increase from last year.
  • In Encinitas, there are 117 people living unsheltered, which is 1.3 percent of the county’s homeless total. This number is slightly lower than the year before.
  • San Diego City, which has a highest number of homeless shelters and services, had 5,600 homeless people on the night of the homeless count. This is 61 percent of the county’s total.
  • 77 percent of the unsheltered became homeless while living in San Diego County, which means they are not being bused into our sunny climate from other places but lost their home here and ended up on the streets.

The lack of housing for those on the margins, and those who are housing insecure, continues to be a major problem. An ongoing, regional, collaborative focus on this problem is what will eventually lead to solutions.

At an upcoming public meeting the Encinitas City Council will be considering leasing a remnant of a piece of land that we own for a small Habitat for Humanity project. The city doesn’t own a lot of land. But taking advantage of opportunities as they arise, like building a couple units of housing for those in the lower economic strata, is an important way for us to do our part.

If you are interested in planning in the rail corridor, please consider attending the next Coast Mobility working group meeting, which is from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. this Tuesday, 4/25, at city hall, 505 S. Vulcan Ave., Encinitas. The agenda items include hearing from the city of San Clemente about the process involved in quieting their train horns, a review of the design for a proposed under-crossing (i.e. tunnel) near Verdi in Cardiff, and a discussion of design guidelines that would apply to anything built in the rail corridor.

And finally I was invited and accepted a role as a member of the Board of Directors of the Local Government Commission (LGC), which describes itself as “Leaders for Livable Communities.” The board is comprised of 15 members, all elected officials from City Councils and County Boards of Supervisors across the state. I attended the annual LGC conference in Yosemite this year, where I got to know some of the board members and the executive director. I was impressed with the content and perspective of their organization and feel it would be a valuable opportunity to expand as an elected leader.

In ongoing service,