Businesses in the city's downtown and business districts will be allowed to sell alcohol close to homes, schools and churches without the public's say or input, under sweeping changes to Tampa's zoning laws approved Tuesday by the city council.
The changes, approved by a 4 to 3 vote, empower the city's zoning department to grant special-use alcohol permits to convenience stores, hotels and other businesses in those areas without public notice or council review if the applicant has a state liquor license and meets minimum zoning requirements such as parking, landscaping and signage.
Tuesday's approval â?? four days before a newly elected council takes over â?? is the final vote on the changes. Council members narrowly approved the measure on March 17.
For businesses in the downtown, West Shore Business District and other areas of the city designated for commerce, the changes also eliminate the need for a waiver from council if the alcohol sales will be within 1,000 feet of schools, churches and playgrounds.
Businesses outside these areas that don't meet minimum zoning requirements would still need to go through the process of two public hearings and two votes by council.
Neighborhood groups argued the changes reduce public scrutiny of alcohol sales and curtail their ability to help shape commercial growth adjacent to residential areas.
"This takes away our ability to talk to you," Sue Lyon, a longtime neighborhood activist, told the council. "We don't want that relationship to end. We want to be involved."
Councilwoman Mary Mulhern, who along with Charlie Miranda and Yvonne Capin voted against the changes, said she was concerned about the effect on neighborhoods.
The trio, who will be part of the next council, tried unsuccessfully to postpone the vote until May, arguing that changes needed more input from neighborhood associations.
"This is a major policy change," Mulhern said. "We need more time to review it."
The Hillsborough County School District also opposed the rule changes and had asked the city not to ease the 1,000-foot rule, which has been on the books since 1945.
Among the businesses that will no longer need public notice to obtain an alcohol permit: convenience stores, gas stations, hotels and other businesses where alcohol sales are secondary to other merchandise.
Bowling alleys with 10 or more lanes, restaurants with limited hours and businesses that that don't have amplified outdoor music after 11 p.m. also won't need council approval.
City officials said the changes will streamline the permitting process â?? one of the main issues in Tampa's recent election â?? making it less cumbersome and expensive for local businesses to sell alcohol while reducing the city's administrative expenses.
Catherine Coyle, the city's land development coordinator, said Tampa is one of the most restrictive municipalities in Florida when it comes to alcohol beverage sales permitting.
She pointed out that the council would still have to review and vote on requests for other businesses that sell alcohol, such as nightclubs, bars and some types of restaurants.
"The intent is not to have a Wild West out there as far as alcohol is concerned," Coyle said.
For decades, nearly every liquor license request â?? from restaurants and convenience stores that want to sell beer and wine to nightclubs â?? had gone through the council for approval, a process that includes two public hearings and two votes on the changes.
Land use attorneys, who packed into council chambers with business district leaders in support of the changes, said those rules are a burden on small business owners.
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