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Wanting More Businesses, Montebello Reworks Alcohol Policy

Alcohol-selling establishments like convenience stores, neighborhood markets, restaurants and bars could find the city of Montebello a more attractive place to do business, at least that’s the reasoning behind a recent change in the ordnance regulating the sale of alcohol in the city.

Revitalizing Montebello’s commercial corridors has been a top priority for city officials who for the last several years have struggled with tight budgets, made more difficult by the still sluggish economy and the decision by state legislators to get rid of redevelopment agencies.

So at a recent meeting, the Montebello City Council took steps to make the city’s alcohol ordinance less restrictive, removing the automatic requirement that new businesses selling liquor for either on-site or off-site consumption be at least 300 feet from another alcohol-use, residential use, religious facility or health care facility. Prior to being amended, the ordinance also automatically prohibited businesses located within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, playgrounds or locations of with a similar use, from getting a license to sell alcohol.

City Planning Manager Ariel Socarras told the council the distance requirement has been an obstacle to the city’s economic development plans in recent years because many of the city’s commercial corridors are close to residences.

“There’s a need in the city for more entertainment-oriented  alcohol uses,” Socarras said. “This opens the door to flexibility and promotes economic development.”

But not all of the members of the council agreed with Socarras’ assessment.

“I don’t think a person will go thirsty for a drink in the city of Montebello and I’m not sure we need a whole lot more [businesses selling alcohol],” said Mayor Pro Tem William M. Molinari.

And one resident questioned whether the policy change, despite having the input and approval of the city’s police department, could lead to a jump in crime, especially in areas near schools where students tend to congregate.

The amended ordinance was first adopted in 2001 as a way to regulate alcohol sales and protect the public, while still recognizing the hospitality, entertainment and recreation-related businesses that contribute to the city’s economy. Most alcohol establishments in Montebello were grandfathered in, making them exempt from some of the restrictions, Socarras explained.

Chain restaurants and retailers with 10,000 gross square feet or more, like Albertson’s and Walgreens that do not dedicate more than 25 percent of their stock to alcohol, have always been exempt from the distance restriction, he said.

While the State’s Alcohol Beverage Control oversees the issuance of alcohol licenses to businesses, they only check to see if there is an over-concentration of licenses in an area based on census data, but do not deny licenses based on how close they will be to so-called “sensitive” areas, such as residences, schools, parks and churches. Those restrictions are left up to local municipalities.

Socarras said the city already looks at over-concentration and the close proximity it has to sensitive uses. “We are going to continue to be looking at that,” he said.

In addition to the size of the lot, street accessibility and whether it is consistent with the general plan, the new ordinance will require additional findings in order address the characteristics of an establishment that sells alcohol before approving a permit.

“Alcohol uses are a little different,” Socarras said. “It’s typically an accessory to a primary use of a property and they come with a whole new set of potential impacts.”

Staff will be required to look into public safety, noise levels, loitering, an over-concentration of such establishments and whether alcohol in the area would aggravate existing problems in the community. Staff will also look into how outdoor patios would affect the surrounding areas.

“If we are going to start attracting some of these restaurants some of them want to have outside eating or drinking and some of them unfortunately are not grandfathered in because of the proximity that prohibited them,” said Councilman Art Barrajas, supporting the change in policy.

The council moved to increase the public notice requirement from 10 days to at least 20 days before the public hearing on a proposed alcohol-use establishment. In addition to notifying all property owners within 300 feet of subject site, all tenants and occupants of buildings within 500 feet of subject site will now be notified.

“This [ordinance] is crucial to luring business to our town,” Councilman Jack Hadjinian said. “I’m comfortable relaxing the conditions because of the increase public notice that will be in place.”

City officials say the change will open the door for more businesses to locate along the city’s major streets.

“I believe that we should have increased business growth and this is an opportunity for that, but I do think we should do it very cautiously,” Mayor Christina Cortez said.

Current and new business interested in applying for an alcohol use permit will be able to apply as early as June.

“With the proposed ordinance it gives [businesses] the right to apply for a permit but they must go through staff and approval by the planning commission,” said Socarras. “We now have a method to better disapprove something if we feel is inappropriate or not right for the location.”