Encinitas will enact tough new rules for downtown bars and restaurants to combat late-night noise, public drunkenness and a host of other alcohol-related problems along its coastal corridor, the City Council decided this week.
Jubilant residents who’ve complained for years about the increasing number of bars and brew pubs downtown gave the Encinitas City Council a standing ovation Wednesday after it unanimously directed city staff to draft the regulations, which will include a new permit system for places that serve alcohol.
Several bar and restaurant owners, however, called the permit system poorly thought-out and said the move would punish all downtown businesses in an effort to solve an over-hyped, non-existent problem that’s not backed up by crime statistics.
Eric Leitstein, who owns the Union Kitchen + Tap on South Coast Highway 101, said he felt his business was being “demonized” by residents simply because it sells alcohol and has a state license that allows it to remain open until 2 a.m. each night.
“Yes, we serve alcohol, but we serve it responsibly,” he said, noting that most nights the Union closes well before 2 a.m. “We work with regulatory agencies. We honestly don’t see the problems that a lot of the residents are bringing up.”
His comments were hotly disputed by Leucadia resident Dennis Holz, who said Leitstein ought to be very aware of the late-night issues that can occur when the area’s restaurants transform at some point during the evening from sit-down eateries into rowdy bars where patrons stand and down their drinks.
City code enforcement found the Union in violation of its permits three times within one month because it’s morphing into a bar environment late at night, Holz said, mentioning that this information was included in the agenda packets the council received from city staff.
The first time the investigators came, they reported finding, “tables pushed out of the way. Next week … playing smart, the tables are there, but the chairs are pushed out of the way. Next week, they’re at 150 to 200 percent of occupancy …,” Holz said.
“That’s … three code violations in four weeks. So when he stands there and says he’s being demonized, baloney. He’s the guy that this needs to be applied to, ” Holz said as supporters of the proposed permit system applauded.
Council members asked city planners to draft a new permit system similar to one that’s in use in Ventura and bring it back for a council vote at a later date.
Known as a “deemed approved” system, it would establish a new permit requirement for existing alcohol-serving establishments. In order to gain and keep a permit, establishments would need to meet certain standards to eliminate public nuisance problems, such as late-night noise.
“Your work has just begun in terms of putting together a package,” Councilman Tony Kranz told planning staff members as the council discussed how to design the proposed permit system.
The council initially considered establishing such a system in 2014, but ultimately decided to hold off and try other enforcement measures first. On Wednesday, council members said those measures — including additional code enforcement visits and extra Sheriff’s Department patrols — have had some effect, but that there continues to be alcohol-related complaints in downtown.
Mayor Catherine Blakespear said there’s also the worry that more alcohol-serving businesses may open soon, so the city at least needs to stop the problems from getting worse.
The city’s planning department reports that a dozen permit requests, both for new places and the expansion of existing establishments, are now pending.
While council members backed the “deemed approved” proposal Wednesday night, they did not support a permit fee system like the one in place in Ventura, saying they want the new permits but they don’t want to add an extra charge to the expenses businesses pay. Instead, they’ll aim to fund the program through fines paid by violators, they said.
The proposed permit system was just one of a host of new control measures the council backed Wednesday night.
The panel directed city planners to create regulations to stop “party buses” from piling into downtown and idling their engines for hours. They also asked staff members to update city noise standards, come up with measures to reduce the size of lines of people out in front of alcohol-serving establishments, consider increasing city fines for code violations and draft an entertainment ordinance similar to one in Carlsbad.
And the panel said any new alcohol-serving establishments that want to open downtown should at least initially be required to close by 10 p.m.
Henry is a freelance writer in Encinitas.