Tampa alcohol buffer zone restriction may fall

By CHRISTIAN M. WADE | The Tampa Tribune

March 29, 2011

Businesses could be allowed to sell alcohol near schools, churches and parks, without the public's say or input, under a proposal headed for the city council today.

The proposal would, among other things, empower the city's zoning department to grant wet zoning permits to businesses without public notice or council approval, as long as the applicant meets minimum requirements.

It would also eliminate the need for a special waiver from council if businesses are within 1,000 feet of homes, schools, churches and playgrounds.

"If these changes are made, the city will be able to approve a convenience store, with alcohol sales, next to a home without notifying anyone," said Jerry Frankhouser, president of Tampa Homeowners, An Association of Neighborhoods, an umbrella group representing about 40 homeowner associations.

Today's vote ‚?? four days before a newly elected council takes over ‚?? would be the final vote on the proposed changes. Council members narrowly approved the measure on March 17.

City officials say the changes will streamline the permitting process ‚?? which was one of the main issues in Tampa's recent election ‚?? making it less cumbersome and expensive for local businesses to sell alcohol, while reducing the city's administrative expenses.

But neighborhood groups say the changes would reduce public scrutiny of who is selling alcohol.

"There has to be some kind of notice," said Frankhouser.

A representative from the Hillsborough County school district is expected to attend today's council meeting to voice opposition to the changes.

For decades, nearly every liquor license request ‚?? from restaurants and convenience stores that want to sell beer and wine to nightclubs ‚?? has gone through the council for approval, a process that includes two public hearings and two votes on the changes.

"Right now, it takes an average of two to three months to get a wet zoning permit from filing application to council approval," said Eric Cotton, the city's zoning administrator.

Given the economy, that doesn't make sense, land use attorneys argue.

"There's no reason that small business owners should have to go through a bureaucratic quagmire just to sell beer and wine, especially in this economy," said Mark Bentley, who represents the Florida Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association.

He said the average cost for a mom-and-pop convenience to get a wet zoning permit is between $15,000 and $20,000, including legal representation and required paperwork.

Bentley said he has reviewed two years of council actions on wet-zoning permits and found more than 90 percent of requested waivers from the 1,000-foot rule ‚?? a regulation that has been on the city's books since the end of World War II ‚?? were approved.

Among the businesses that wouldn't need public notice, if the changes are approved:

ēPackage sales at convenience stores or alcohol sales as secondary to any other merchandise sales, such as pharmacies and gas stations.

ēBowling alleys (10 lanes or more).

ēRestaurants that agree to restricted operating hours (Sunday-Wednesday with an 11 p.m. closing; Thursday-Saturday with a 1 a.m. closing).

ēBusinesses agreeing not to have amplified outdoor music after 11 p.m.

On March 17, the measure passed 4 to 3, with members Charlie Miranda, Mary Mulhern and Yvonne Capin voting against it. All three return to the newly constituted council that takes office on Friday.

Miranda said he opposes the changes because of the impact on neighborhoods.

"Streamlining the permitting process is one thing, changing the character of a residential neighborhood is another," he said. "These rules are on the books for a good reason."

The changes, if approved, also present somewhat of a conundrum for Mayor-elect Bob Buckhorn, who takes office this Friday.

Buckhorn campaigned on reducing bureaucracy, particularly in the city's permitting process, but also pledged to pay attention to neighborhood concerns.

The council meets at 10 a.m. in old City Hall on 315 E. Kennedy Blvd. in downtown.


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