Neighborhoods Battling Alcohol Permits Have an Uphill Fight

March 16, 2010

For release Tuesday noon March 16 and thereafter (700 words)

Three years ago, neighborhood residents cheered when the state Alcohol and Tobacco Commission denied a request by an Indianapolis Circle K to sell beer and wine along with traditional fare: gas, pop and food items.
 
Greg Silver served as attorney for the Nora Community Council, which opposed the alcohol permit. “We had everyone from the neighborhood against it,” he recalls.
 
The united effort, Silver says, persuaded officials that there was no public demand for the product at that location, and that the station’s proximity to the interstate made the sale of alcohol there especially risky. The Marion County board recommended denial of the permit and the state agreed.
 
This neighborhood success story showed community organizing at its best, but it was anything but typical in Indiana where the system is stacked against remonstrators in permit proceedings and in favor of businesses wanting to sell alcoholic beverages.
 
Two recent developments have placed a spotlight on the issue and could lead to changes in the permitting process. A lawsuit filed by the Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers, which represents package stores, argues that the state commission has misread the law and is granting more permits than allowed by state quotas leading to over-concentration of liquor sellers in many neighborhoods. The state defends what it calls a “longstanding interpretation” of the statute.
 
At the same time, Walgreens has asked for permission to sell alcohol at more than 170 Indiana stores, requests that will go before local boards in coming months and test the organizational skills of neighborhood opponents.
 
Community opposition holds limited sway in this process, which tends to allow permits as long as applicants meet character requirements and permit quotas are not already exhausted.
 
In 2008, the same neighborhood group that battled Circle K lost a similar effort to keep wine, beer and hard liquor out of its neighborhood Target. In a high profile case in 2006, neighborhood activists unsuccessfully opposed the sale of liquor in a restaurant housed in a government building, the Julia Carson Center.
 
When the issue reached the state board for hearing, Frank Sauer showed up to remonstrate but never got to speak. “I was like a dog chasing a runaway vehicle,” he said. Sauer believes there has been a ”senseless escalation of liquor permits” of late and he’d like to see the process reined in.
 
Clarke Kahlo, a liquor permit remonstrator in a 2009 case, echoes his concern. Kahlo challenged a permit request for a corner restaurant at an intersection where liquor had not been sold before. He lost. At both local and state levels, Kahlo says, the beverage boards see themselves more as permitting entities than regulatory bodies. “The local board is not very supportive of neighborhood pleas for restraint or regulation of permits. It hasn’t been for a long time.”
           
One problem is that it’s often hard for neighbors to get organized quickly and collect data to show a permit should be denied. Applicants for new permits must notify businesses and residents within 1,000 feet of their establishment a mere 15 days before a hearing.  A local board takes evidence, votes on the request and sends its recommendation to the state commission.
           
Dick Robertson, a Lebanon city councilman whose family is selling its liquor stores after 50 years in the business, considers the local hearing meaningless. “Your local ABC board really has no control to stop issuing permits to sell alcohol unless the applicant has violated any rules or laws at that location.” Robertson opposed a permit request for a Kroger in his town, the local board denied the application, but “within weeks (alcohol) was on the shelves at the store.  The state approved it. There is no local control anymore.”
 
Should there be? That question ultimately needs to be settled by the state legislature, not the courts. But there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest local citizens know best what their neighborhoods can handle.
 
After Walgreens filed its permit requests, residents of the United Northeast Community in Indy met with store officials and presented data as to why one particular location, 38th Street and Sherman Avenue, was unsuitable for alcohol sales. The company listened and withdrew the application – another rare neighborhood success story that bypassed the regulatory process altogether.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.



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