Alcohol law rewrite could affect area restaurants

  • By MEGAN PACER AND ANNA FROST
  • Wednesday, October 12, 2016 5:02pm
  • NewsLocal News

The Homer City Council on Monday discussed updates to Alaska’s alcohol laws, spearheaded by Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, which would convert currently held public convenience licenses into seasonal licenses. If the proposed changes pass, the 12 establishments operating with public convenience liquor licenses in Homer would have their licenses converted to seasonal licenses.

Young’s Downtown Restaurant and Inn, Pho & Thai Restaurant, Fat Olives, Boardwalk Fish & Chips, Mermaid Café, Fresh Catch Café, Two Sisters Bakery, La Baleine Café, Happy Face Restaurant, Starvin Marvin’s, Little Mermaid, and Captain Patties Fish House all hold public convenience licenses, according to city records. For those that operate year-round, the seasonal license would only allow them to serve alcoholic beverage six months out of each year.

Senate Bill 99, which was introduced last April by Micciche but was not addressed during the 29th Legislature, sought to update, simplify and change aspects of Title 4 of Alaska Statute, the laws that regulate alcoholic beverages in the state. Parts of the rewrite, like lowering the penalties for minor consuming alcohol and reorganization of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, were included in SB 165, which was signed into law in July. The deadline for the final legislation to be ready is Nov. 15.

Updating licensing for alcohol would phase out the existing licenses that were attained through the public convenience portion of the statute, which requires collecting signatures within a one-mile radius of the business, Micciche told the Soldotna city council on a visit to the Sept. 28 meeting.

“To date, public convenience licensees have not been associated with significant enforcement problems, but circumvent the population limitation system. From the public health perspective, this weakens the control on the number of retail access points to alcohol in a community,” according to the recommendations for statutory change. “… The ABC Board would like to respond to the demands of the seasonal visitor (tourist, traveler and worker) market in small communities with few retail licenses allowed under the population limits while addressing issues with Public Convenience licenses.”

The proposed changes would permanently stop the issuing of new public convenience licenses and convert existing public convenience licenses to a new Seasonal REPL Tourism license, allowing for existing licenses to be grandfathered in for the short term and one transfer of ownership at the same location, according to the Alaska Title 4 Review recommendations for statutory change document. Seasonal REPL tourism licenses would have an operating limit of six months of each calendar year, though those six months are not required to be contiguous.

A formula based on city population and average monthly visitor population would decide the number of seasonal REPL tourism licenses allowed, according to the recommendations for statutory change. Communities exceeding a local population of 20,000 will not have seasonal REPLs available to them.

Homer city manager Katie Koester suggested to the city council during the Monday, Oct. 10 meeting that they keep following the progress of the update to Title 4, as Homer’s restaurants hold many of the public convenience licenses that the changes would affect.

Most of the 57 public convenience licenses, nine of which are seasonal, in the state are held in small communities that have otherwise been issued the maximum number of allowed REPLs (restaurant or eating place licenses). Homer has 12 public convenience licenses, the rural Kenai Peninsula areas have 10, and Seward has 7.

Though Homer has a population within its city limits of approximately 5,000, Homer area restaurants with licenses to sell alcohol also serve those that live outside city limits in areas such as Diamond Ridge, Anchor Point, Kachemak City, and out East End Road, in addition to a hefty seasonal tourist population. City council member David Lewis asked if there might be a way to base the formula off of geographic area population versus city population, which might be a more fair way to gauge the number of people served by local establishments.

Council member Heath Smith suggested that Homer request input on the changes, as the city of Soldotna did in a Sept. 12 letter to Micciche and the ABC stakeholder group, written by Soldotna’s director of economic development and planning Stephanie Queen. Queen has been attending stakeholder meetings and has presented comments about how the statute rewrite could affect local businesses that are currently licensed under public convenience.

In the letter, Queen outlined some problems doing away with licenses issued under public convenience while limiting alcohol licenses by population could cause for cities like Soldotna, a town of roughly 4,300 residents living within just over 7.3 square miles.

“Public convenience licenses have allowed businesses like St. Elias in Soldotna, Two Sisters Bakery and Fat Olives in Homer, and the Tide Pool Café in Seldovia to serve beer and wine in their restaurants,” Queen wrote. “These businesses are important to our communities, and would not have been allowed if the strict population limitations were employed.”

Queen pointed out in a chart included in her letter that though Soldotna’s municipal population is only about 4,300, the city reported more than $25 million in gross restaurant and bar sales in 2013, the most of any other municipality in the borough. She suggested in her letter that, rather than evaluate license limits based solely on municipal populations, Title 4 include a way for local governments to petition the ABC Board for additional licenses if appropriate.

“Because state statutes are only concerned with population of a municipality … there is a mis-match of where licenses are available, versus where the demand is greatest,” she wrote.

Micciche told the Soldotna city council that recommendations made by the stakeholder committees are still included in the comprehensive package and are being worked on during the 2016 interim. These include the concerns and suggestions from the city of Soldotna regarding licensing, which he said could affect other municipalities in the state as well.

“Most important to the city of Soldotna for the economy in this area is allowing the board to develop population limits for REPL’s that take into consideration service area, not just permanent residence,” Micciche said of the recommendations. “Soldotna is clearly a victim of that with 4,300 residents and a service area of 25,000 that probably doubles in the summer.”

Reviewing Title 4 has involved more than 60 stakeholders, who are still working on areas that were not addressed in SB 165, Micciche said, like licensing and permitting.

“We want to simplify the licensing system,” he told the council. “We’re going to bring them all into one place in the statute. We want to eliminate the potential for abuse and favoritism, (and) we want to update licensing fees and reporting requirements.”

Other goals of rewriting Title 4 would be to increase staff to enforce alcoholic beverage laws in rural Alaska communities and increasing penalties for licensed businesses found to serve alcohol to minors, Micciche said.

“We know that we are … the number one state in the country for negative demographics associated with alcohol abuse,” Micciche told the council. “Some of that has to do with 40-year-old alcohol statutes that are largely a hodge-podge of different issues that have occurred over the last many years.”

Some portions of the statute have not been updated since the 1980s, he said.

SB 165 did allow for a more equitable composition of the ABC Board, Micciche said, which was previously made up of two industry seats and three seats filled by members of the public. The new makeup of the board since the passing of SB 165 will be two industry seats, one public member seat, one public safety seat and one seat filled by a member of the rural public.

“We believe it’ll at least create a balance, if not lean toward more of a public safety, public health composition,” Micciche said.

Rather than being charged with a class A misdemeanor, minors who are caught consuming alcohol will be fined $500, which Micciche said can be reduced to $50 if six months of education is implemented. Further, the incident will not show up on a minor’s online Courtview record, he said.

Megan Pacer is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion and can be reached at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com. Anna Frost can be reached at anna.frost@homernews.com.

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