License to sell

City Council’s recent approval of alcohol license highlights need for clear policies

Last week the Chico City Council approved an off-site beer and wine license at Gojo Market on Nord Avenue, an area already oversaturated by alcohol sales and in the heart of the student neighborhood.

Last week the Chico City Council approved an off-site beer and wine license at Gojo Market on Nord Avenue, an area already oversaturated by alcohol sales and in the heart of the student neighborhood.

Photo by Howard Hardee

In May of last year, Charanjiv Singh was sure he’d soon be out of business. The Chico City Council had just voted to deny his application for a beer and wine license at his convenience store, the Mangrove Mini Mart at the corner of Fifth and Mangrove avenues, and customers looking to pick up a six-pack were leaving empty-handed.

Singh was a victim of circumstance. He was the first applicant for a liquor license after a string of alcohol-related student deaths and Chico State’s Call for Community Action, released that January, led Police Chief Kirk Trostle to publicly state that the city should stop granting alcohol licenses entirely. But the council came under fire for denying Singh’s application after granting one to retail giant BevMo! just a couple months prior. Eventually, the panel reversed course on Mangrove Mini Mart, allowing the neighborhood gas station and market to sell alcohol.

Since then, business at Singh’s store has picked up significantly, Singh said during a recent interview. “It’s not just beer and wine sales; overall sales are getting better,” he said. “People know we sell beer and wine and they come to get gas, some soda, other groceries.”

The Mangrove Mini Mart saga illustrates a complex issue still facing city officials: how to get a grip on Chico’s rampant alcohol abuse while balancing public safety and business interests.

“You have the alcohol establishments who want to make profits, employ people, bring revenue to the community, but you also have advocacy groups who see the harm that alcohol brings to the community when it’s abused,” Trostle said during a recent interview.

The city is currently working toward establishing clear policies regarding the approval of new alcohol licenses and instituting more local oversight. But an exchange during the council’s most recent meeting, on Oct. 7, suggests that not everyone within the city is on the same page.

At that meeting, the council was considering an application for a beer and wine license at Gojo Market on Nord Avenue, which bisects a student neighborhood and is surrounded on both sides with retailers that sell alcohol. The staff report, prepared by Lt. Mike O’Brien of Chico PD, noted that Gojo Market is in “an area with an undue concentration of alcoholic beverage licenses.”

Some members of the panel were surprised, then, to see that Trostle had recommended approval of the license due to a determination of public convenience or necessity.

“The police chief said, ‘Look, I’m totally opposed to this, but I’m recommending approval,’” Councilman Randall Stone said this week. “I don’t understand that.”

Councilwoman Tami Ritter was confused, too. During the meeting, she said that she believed the chief’s stance was that the city shouldn’t approve any new licenses, particularly within areas oversaturated with alcohol sales, and asked for clarification.

Trostle explained that he was under the impression—following the reversal of the Mangrove Mini Mart decision—that the council desired he recommend approval of alcohol licenses.

After some confusion—O’Brien clarified that Gojo’s application was for a license transfer between businesses, and therefore was not introducing a new license to the city—the council voted 5-2, with Stone and Councilwoman Ann Schwab dissenting, to grant approval of the license.

Ritter told the CN&R over the phone that she didn’t want to vote in favor of more alcohol sales on Nord, but it would have been unfair to the business owner already invested in the venture.

“By the time it gets to us, for us to say we’re issuing this out of necessity, it’s too late to have that discussion; people have already poured their livelihood into the business,” she said. “So, did I want to vote ‘yes’ on that project? Absolutely not. But I wasn’t going to risk this small-business owner losing everything they have because we don’t have a clear policy.”

The inconsistency has been trying for many businesspeople, such as the owners of the Mangrove Mini Mart, the Winchester Goose, Enjoy Teriyaki and B Street Public House (previously B Street Oyster Co.). At Kona’s Sandwiches, where an Alcoholic Beverage Control alcohol-license-request sign has been taped to the window since last December, owner Chris Yarbrough is still unable to offer his customers beer with their meals.

Trostle has been roundly criticized by those business owners for his stance on new alcohol licenses, which he acknowledges some may perceive as extreme. His opinion hasn’t changed, but he says that, since he presented the council with a 500-page staff report on alcohol licenses in July of last year, he was provided clear direction to recommend approval of alcohol licenses.

And the council’s actions since then have reinforced that notion. “They even approved alcohol at the golf course in Bidwell Park,” he said. “That was obviously the council wanting to move in that direction.”

Under state law, “the city doesn’t have a lot of say-so whether an alcohol license gets approved or disapproved,” Trostle said. All applicants first go to ABC for approval; the City Council gets involved only if ABC has deemed the applicant’s census tract to be oversaturated with liquor establishments, as was the case with Gojo Market on Nord Avenue. The applicant is then required persuade the local governing body (in Chico’s case, the City Council) that the public would benefit from an additional place to buy booze.

But the city may soon have additional means of control. Trostle said he agreed to recommend approval of alcohol licenses so long as the city moved forward with two amendments to Title 19, the city’s land use and development regulations—a conditional use permit and a deemed approved ordinance.

Associate Planner Greg Redeker said that if any businesses are causing alcohol-related problems, the amendments would allow the city to rein them in without ABC involvement. Such localized oversight has proven effective in other cities grappling with alcohol abuse problems, Trostle said.

The conditional use permit would impose a series of requirements on new businesses that sell alcohol, including operating standards like training employees on responsible alcohol service, maintaining a clean exterior and sidewalk, properly managing lines at the door and limiting hours of operation on days of the year associated with widespread alcohol abuse (i.e., Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day and Cesar Chavez Day).

A deemed approved ordinance, on the other hand, would establish operational requirements for existing businesses and standard penalties for noncompliance.

Both amendments will be discussed today (Oct. 16) at the Planning Commission’s regular meeting at 6:30 p.m. in the City Council chambers, and that body’s recommendation will be considered by the Chico City Council sometime in November.