Liquor code changes ready for final action

by Emmitt B. Feldner of The Review staff

PLYMOUTH – After more than a year of study by an ad-hoc committee, a revised liquor license ordinance finally reached the City Council for their review Tuesday.

And at least one item that proved to be a point of contention for the study committee proved to be one as well for the council.

The revised ordinance will be acted on by the City Council at their Feb. 23 meeting.

The council went through the 27-page document – which covers license for liquor stores, alcohol sellers, picnic licenses and bartender’s licenses – with City Attorney Crystal Fieber, who prepared the proposed ordinance based on the recommendations from the Ad-hoc Liquor License Ordinance Committee.

That committee began its deliberations in October 2014 and wrapped up last month.

“Some of the revisions are simply to bring the city code up to what is currently in state law, but others are policy decisions on issues that are left to municipalities to decide,” Fieber told the council.

The disagreement came about half way through the review, in the section on “Restrictions near Schools and Churches” under retail liquor licenses.

That prohibits issuing such a license to any premise “that is located within 300 feet of a church or school.”

The committee had recommended adding a sentence following that reading, “This provision is not subject to waiver by the Common Council.”

That brought objections from council members Jim Faller and Charles Hansen, both of whom had objected to that restriction on the study committee.

“The state says that the council can look beyond the 300-foot limit,” Hansen said. He was referring to the state law that gives local governing boards – city councils, town boards and village boards – the right to waive that restriction.

He noted that none of the other municipalities across the state contacted by city staff for their liquor regulations put such a restriction on council review of the distance rule.

“That’s how the process should work. I don’t believe we should restrict future councils,” Hansen commented.

Faller concurred, citing an earlier clause in the proposed ordinance which the committee and the council had not objected to which read, “The Common Council has broad discretion in issuing alcohol licenses.”

“This council or any future council couldn’t consider one (license application) if it was 299 feet from a church. That’s the way it’s written. That eliminates any broad discretion,” for the council, Faller pointed out.

“This committee has worked hard on this and I don’t know why we should do different than what the committee has recommended,” Alderman Shawn Marcom stated.

“We didn’t come up with that 300 feet, the state came up with that,” Alderman Greg Hildebrand, who also served on the study committee.

Alderman Jack Fernsler cited the city of Madison, which has waived the 300-foot limit in some circumstances.

“That was Madison, this is Plymouth,” Hildebrand responded.

Fieber said it was her advice that the city follow state law and remove the prohibition on the council review of the proximity rule.

“My recommendation to the committee was that they keep the waiver language consistent with state statute,” Fieber related.

“I think you’re creating an argument that your code is not consistent with state law,” she said of not allowing the council the ability to waive the prohibition. “At the very least, you’re opening the door to a challenge to your ordinance. Certainly it’s a policy decision, but that’s my legal opinion.”

Another change in the proposed ordinance is in the number of retail liquor licenses that would be allowed.

The state sets no limit on the licenses for liquor stores, as it does for taverns, but leaves it to local municipalities to set their own number.

The Plymouth code has set the limit at four for a number of years. Under the proposal from the study committee, that would be changed to one per every 1,000 population in the city.

That would raise the current limit to eight, based on the city’s population. Another license would be made available if the city’s population grows to more than 9,000.

Anyone who would take out any of the new liquor store licenses, if approved, would have to follow the same rules as other license holders. Those rules, set by the city, require a separate entrance, checkout and cashier for a liquor department in any existing store. That was left intact by the study committee.

Committee member Sue Kaiser thanked the council for the opportunity to serve on the committee. “There was a lot of time involved and a lot of head-butting at times,” she admitted.

“I don’t think this can be a document for all times,” she told the council. “It behooves you to review this every three to five years as the community changes.”

Kaiser conceded that the committee may not have gotten enough community feedback on the issues involved. “I would strongly encourage the council to get input from the community. Maybe we didn’t get as well-rounded a view as we could have.”

Marcom agreed, calling on citizens to make their feelings known before the council takes its final vote Feb. 23.

“Contact your alderman in your district and give them some direct feedback. We really need that,” Marcom stated.

“A lot of thought, efforts and concerns were brought in to this process,” Hansen concluded. “I will support the final result that comes out of the council.”

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