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Panel mulls liquor license revision

Who should have a say about neighborhood bars at issue

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Residents, bar owners, and drag queens faced off Thursday over a proposed bill that would limit residents' ability to protest a commercial liquor license application unless they live within about a block of the business.

The proposal was among 43 recommendations to the District's alcohol laws from which D.C. Council member Jim Graham of Ward 1 crafted an omnibus reform bill he is working to have passed before the end of the year.

The portion of the bill that was at the heart of most of Thursday's hearing, before the Committee on Human Services, would restrict a group of five or more residents from protesting the issuance or renewal of an alcohol license unless the group members all live within 400 feet of the business.

"There is a sense that these are the individuals who will be immediately affected," Mr. Graham said. "The feeling was that adding five residents from anywhere in the District of Columbia was too much."

Currently, affected advisory neighborhood commissions (ANC), abutting property owners, civic associations or any groups of five or more people who live anywhere in the District but share "common grounds for their protest" can object to the licenses.

Several business owners testified at the hearing of the frustrations they've endured as a result of so-called "voluntary agreements," which they say they were forced into as a result of "gang of five" protests.

Jamie Leeds, owner of Hank's Oyster Bar in Dupont Circle, said a large portion of her bar's outdoor patio was recently ordered shut down after the District's Alcohol Beverage Control board terminated her voluntary agreement but that a gang of five filed for an appeal of the decision in court. She would like to see Mr. Graham's restrictions go further and ban ad hoc groups from protesting on their own at all, rather forcing them to work in collaboration with ANCs if they have complaints.

"The fringe elements should be taken out of the process," Ms. Leeds said. "Residents and property owners' rights can be protected by the elected ANC. If residents don't like what the ANC is doing, they can elect different commissioners."

Residents argued that the impact of a bar can extend much farther than 400 feet, and residents should have the ability to file a protest against an establishment that will affect their surroundings.

From his Cleveland Park home, resident Mark Rosenman said he can often hear partygoers loudly making their way out of bars and back to their cars parked on neighboring side streets.

"The impact goes far beyond that meager area," he said.

Mr. Graham said his hope by limiting the scope of the area where residents could protest was to encourage more residents to work in conjunction with ANCs for official action.

But residents from Ward 5, which has seen both an ANC and council member jailed for theft of government funds, underscored the fact that the system only works as well as the people elected to office.

Resident Kathy Henderson noted how former ANC chairman, William Shelton, who was sentenced to jail time for stealing $30,000 in taxpayer funds, went against the wishes of residents when crafting voluntary agreements with a bar in the neighborhood.

"Despite our well attended and unanimous vote against this establishment, our then chairman, entered into a voluntary agreement," Ms. Henderson said, adding that residents should always be able to protest if they are unduly affected. "This arbitrary 400-foot rule is not well thought out."

Also protesting portions of the bill, including the 400-foot rule, were a group of drag queen performers who said allowing "gangs of five" to launch protests against establishments is as ridiculous as getting dressed in full drag attire at 11 a.m.

"This isn't a daytime sport. We did this to make a point," said David Lett, whose drag persona Lena Lett is well known as the grand marshal of the annual Dupont Circle high-heel drag race.

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