Encinitas pushes forward on bar reforms


Encinitas is barreling forward with its booze crackdown. After years of wrangling, piecemeal measures and mounting uproar from neighbors along the Coast Highway 101 corridor, the Encinitas City Council on Wednesday, April 19, signed onto a package of sweeping reforms that focus on bars and restaurants with on-site alcohol service.

The wide-ranging package of reforms includes: Alcohol service to stop at 10 p.m. for new businesses along the coastal corridor, with possible later cutoffs once they prove their good behavior; establish a noise ordinance downtown and update the standards elsewhere; stiffer fines for code violations; and measures to curb party buses and the long lines of patrons waiting to get into bars.

But for the coalition of residents who have railed against the changing tone of the coastal corridor, the most important aspect is the “deemed approved ordinance,” which will allow the city to enforce nuisance codes according to uniform standards across the city.

The Encinitas Planning Commission plunged into the issue in October. That culminated on April 7 when the commission presented a set of eight recommendations.

The council on Wednesday broadened some of those recommendations and tweaked others. They want to include Cardiff and Encinitas Ranch in the forthcoming analysis and to pay for the new enforcement regime by hitting problem businesses with fines, rather than setting a flat fee on all businesses that serve alcohol.

“It has to be the violators that pay for that increased enforcement. The businesses who are doing well, who don’t need that enforcement, shouldn’t be paying a yearly fee for being able to serve alcohol,” said Councilwoman Tasha Boerner Horvath.

Current rules call for $100 for a first violation and $200 for the second. Boerner Horvath wants $1,000 in both instances. When some councilmembers worried that might be too steep, she said she’d be willing to consider $500 then $1,000.

“If you want somebody not to do something, you make the first penalty high. You don’t make the first penalty low,” she said. “I believe that 99 percent of [owners] are operating correctly today. This will not affect them.”

Perhaps the most crucial — and intensive — discussions will be over how exactly to gauge what they have termed “oversaturation”: a combination of the number of locations serving alcohol, their hours of operation and other factors.

Councilmembers agreed that the city should develop oversaturation standards unique to each area of the city.

“They really are very different,” said Mayor Catherine Blakespear. “We want to make sure we don’t have a one-size-fits-all, blanket approach [and] potentially create problems where we’d like to encourage vibrancy. … El Camino Real, they could use a little night life after 10 p.m., potentially. We don’t want to chill that activity.”

After the council’s unanimous vote, bar owner Dale Polselli was dismayed that the council has pushed forward on the Deemed Approved Ordinance (DAO) despite the success of reforms developed over the last few years.

Polselli came to the 101 corridor in 2008 when he bought Saloon from the family that founded it more than 60 years ago. He expanded into the building next door in 2014, establishing the bar Shelter. That year, the planning commission held off on a DAO and instead moved forward with a program of more proactive code enforcement. It has produced detailed quarterly reports on that enforcement program.

“We were given a mandate by the city council back in 2014 to improve the situation. There’s not one metric that says that we haven’t — it’s in fact the opposite,” Polselli said. “If you look at all the metrics, all the quarterly reports, they show compliance, they show positive change. But instead of staying the course of what has proven to work, we’re imposed with additional regulations.”

As that process unfolded in 2014, many of Encinitas’ bar owners rallied together to form the Encinitas Hospitality Association. That group has waned over the past few years. Only a handful of bar and restaurant owners attended Wednesday’s council meeting.

It left Polselli feeling outnumbered and outmaneuvered.

“I’m not sure there is recourse when you’re up against five councilmembers, five planning commissioners and a citizen committee that’s backed by a multi-billion dollar religious organization,” he said, referring to the Self-Realization Fellowship, which for years has lobbied city leaders to restore the corridor’s tranquility. “We’re small-business owners. We don’t have those kinds of resources, and that’s evident when we see our arguments falling on deaf ears.”

Boerner Horvath expects the umbrella ordinance to be ready before the council’s break in July.

“We’re probably looking at six months to a year,” she said in a later interview.

Despite so much work left to do on the specifics, members of the Encinitas Citizens Committee left satisfied that things are going to change, with a swarm of congratulations and relieved handshakes.

“Whether it’s the change we’ve been waiting for, time will tell, based on what the council actually decides on,” Encinitas resident Margaret Wolff said as she was leaving city hall. “But it feels like there’s been movement forward, which has helped everybody feel like we’re being heard.”

Wolff first moved to Encinitas in 1979, then moved to Berkeley eight years ago before moving back last year.

“And I was absolutely shocked by the difference in the character of our city in the seven years that I was away,” she said. “I don’t want hip. I don’t want cool. What I want is safe, and I want peaceful, and I want happy.”