For its new rule on liquor licenses near schools, Denver deserves extra credit

What? A sensible new rule adopted by the City of Denver without a public uproar? Amazing, but true. On August 30, Tom Downey, director of the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses, signed a new rule — with the blessing of City Attorney Doug Friednash — that removes the hard-and-fast restriction against allowing restaurant liquor licenses close to schools.

Under Colorado state law, retail liquor licenses may not be issued for businesses within 500 feet of a school — and the local licensing authority cannot permit waivers or case-by-case exceptions to the distance restrictions. But as the city's explanation of its recent maneuver notes, "The law provides, however, that the local authority may eliminate this distance restriction for an entire class of license, or may eliminate one or more type of schools or campuses from its applicability. For example, Denver previously eliminated the applicability of the 500-foot restriction to university campuses."

And now it has eliminated the 500-foot distance restriction for the entire class of hotel and restaurant liquor licenses, which are issued only to "bona fide restaurants" that must "maintain a certain percentage of gross income from the sale of meals" (as opposed to, say, tavern and cabaret licenses, in which the emphasis is more on liquor and entertainment). And that's after an applicant has gone through the city's standard process, which includes a public hearing.

The city held its own hearing on the proposed rule change on July 26. The department had started exploring the issue at the request of various community groups that complained the 500-foot limit would make it almost impossible to have a school downtown, for example, because even if already-existing restaurants were grandfathered in, a developer might be reluctant to let a school open on the fifth floor of a building on the 16th Street Mall if it would eliminate the possibility of putting a new eatery on the first floor. The restriction has also dampened developments along Welton Street and near North High School; groups in Green Valley Ranch and Stapleton were also interested in having the city take another look at the rule.

The balance of people commenting at that hearing supported the change, Downey says, but a few expressed concerns that after an establishment got its license, it might end up acting more like a tavern than a real restaurant. And so the city came up with "informal," but written, "special protocols" to prevent such eventualities, including the stipulation that "no cabaret licenses shall be issued without agreement from any school within 500 feet" and a warning that the department will also "apply special scrutiny" to complaints regarding licenses within that 500-foot limit. "We're going to take them as they come," Downey says.

We'll drink to that! But we'll also keep our speed down if we're consuming in a school zone.

 
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