Bitter beer case

Sikh-dominated liquor stores object to Sacramento County's pricier permitting process

Elected officials last week sipped a new brew of liquor-license regulations before putting the concoction down to sit for a month.

A proposal to tighten oversight of booze-slinging businesses got a partial go-ahead from Sacramento County supervisors, who were inundated with complaints that the new process would grease the wheels for restaurants while gumming them up for convenience markets.

“If you're a restaurant, here's the red-carpet treatment. If you're a liquor store, wait in that door, and we'll come get you when we want to get you,” described Mark Arabo, president and CEO of the San Diego-based Neighborhood Market Association, which represents roughly 220 small-business owners in Sacramento County. “It's pretty egregious how disproportionate it is.”

More so, according to Arabo, because the local liquor-store market is dominated by Sikh business owners, many of whom spoke at the three-hour hearing on September 24.

Supervisors have long complained of a state licensing process that gives them little control over alcohol-selling establishments in their unincorporated boundaries. Right now, the county can object if a liquor license is headed for an area high in crime or that is overrun with boozy businesses. But even then, supervisors can only recommend denial of the application to the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which has final say. Planning director Leighann Moffitt described the county's ability to apply operational or security conditions as “very limited.”

A long-in-the-works proposal considered last Tuesday would subject smaller businesses—bars, convenience marts and small grocers, among them—to a county-run review process that unfolds concurrently with the state's where applicable. But the version presented last week carved out an abbreviated, cheaper process for new restaurants, while liquor stores and convenience marts faced a longer, pricier road. The new conditional-use permit runs between $13,500 and $17,300.

A deputy county counsel said the money was to recover costs associated with the permitting process. Even so, supervisors moved forward the restaurant portion of the proposal, deciding to return on October 22 to weigh the balance of the drafted zoning codes.

Despite Arabo's critiques, he said the sides were close to a resolution. “There's a lot of quick fixes. We're 98 percent there,” he said.