Monday, September 11, 2006

SLA Scorched Earth Moratorium

In a press release today the State Liquor Authority clarifies then groundrules for its recently announced license moratorium. Its conclusion is that the restriction on the issuance of new licenses will be absolute! There will be no exceptions even for those whose licenses are pending.

The Authority makes this edict because, as it says in its press release, of "allegations of misconduct in, and around licensed premises." While taking pains to say that it isn't pre-judging the guilt or innocence of any parties (we're still not sure what wrongdoings it's referring to in this vague allusion to certain untoward events), it goes on to observe that these events "have called into question whether certain areas of New York County have become oversaturated with such establishments."

What breathtaking logic! If, in fact, there are certain areas that are problematic-although the Authority makes no direct logical correlation between the allegations in its release and the issue of saturation-how does this lead to a moratorium on licensure for the entire borough? In addition, since the Authority is certainly no expert on zoning, how is it going to evaluate the issue of ovesaturation in the context of the city's land use history and economic needs? And how will it, indeed, in four month period?

Which makes the entire moratorium an exercise in political grandstanding, designed more to demonstrate toughness than to address any specific problem (since no specific problem is mentioned other than saturation). In addition, what can any task force possibly come up with in four months that will inform the Authority enough so that it can refine its licensing process?

What this also means is that the Authority, whose chair has already amply exhibited his limited law enforcement worldviw, will now look to usurp the city's zoning and economic development functions. Will it instruct the city to issue new cabaret licenses in Soho and Tribeca in order to reverse the trend toward saturation? Without any zoning expertise how can it even comment on the creation of de facto nightlife districts?

If the SLA looks at the saturation question as an exclusively law enforcement problem than its answer must be to restrict the number of licensees in any one given area. What about when the city itself generates the very saturation that the Authority finds so vexing? Clearly, we begin to tread on some very thin political ice.

Than we come to the philosophy that the SLA sees intrinsic to its 500 foot rule. It feels that the law, just as Senator Padavan has argued, presumes that any establishment in an area where there are already at least three licensees should not be licensed. Now the SLA may be right in its interpretation, although it admits that in the past it has ruled permissively on these applications, but if it is nightlife in this city of dense concentration of licensees is in deep trouble.

Community board genuflection is not a prescription for a vibrant nightlife but it is certainly a gameplan for greater safety, less noise, and a more staid environment-something that the SLA's new sheriff obviously feels are paramount public interests (as they very well might be in Schenectady). NYC's nightlife will not thrive if it must constantly play a game of giant steps with a bluenosed chaperone (You didn't say "May I.")

And then we come to the issue of the public interest that allows for the Authority to make exceptions to the presumptive 500 foot rule. Nowhere is there any questioning of whether this rule itself needs to be altered given the absurdity of its application in the city that never sleeps. One exemption prerequisite that the Authority mentions is "the number and character of other licensed premises in the area."

So, let's get this straight. One of the things that the Authority looks at in granting an exemption to the presumption of illegality is if there are other licenses around. Isn't this tautological? What if there are four? Or five? What's an Authority to do? Especially one with a law enforcement background that gives it a "trained incapacity" to answer these important questions.

All of this can only mean hard times for an industry that is already under siege from government officials and certain segments of the media. And the Summit has yet to take place!