Encinitas to look at limiting alcohol sales

Jared Hodge pours a beer at Encinitas Ale House in 2015.
(Michael Cali/San Diego Union-Tribune/Zuma Press)

The ever-increasing number of places that sell alcohol opening along Encinitas’ six-mile stretch of Coast Highway 101 is cause for concern, city Planning Commissioners said last week.

The panel wants to study whether the city has enough bars, restaurants and liquor shops along the historic highway, and whether it should set limits on how many more are allowed.

“I think we’re all in agreement that we don’t want to become P.B. (Pacific Beach),” Commission Chairman Glenn O’Grady said during a special workshop Dec. 1, echoing a statement some downtown residents have repeatedly made in recent years.

Those neighbors have long complained about bar patrons’ late-night rowdy behavior, drunken driving, littering and other alcohol-related problems along downtown’s portion of Coast Highway 101. In response, the city and the county Sheriff’s Department have stepped up enforcement on everything from state driving laws to the city’s building occupancy limits.

On Dec. 1, Commissioners and several downtown residents said those efforts appear to be working. Resident Shirley Finch thanked the Sheriff’s Department, saying it has done a good job lately of clamping down on the area’s problems.

However, Commissioners said, they worry that the number of alcohol sales spots along the entire six-mile corridor from northern Leucadia to southern Cardiff is starting to become excessive. They cited a city crime “heat map” showing that during the last four years many of Encinitas’ reported crimes have happened along Coast Highway 101.

There are 83 businesses along the corridor licensed to sell alcohol, and every few months, city Planning Commissioners are asked to vote on permit requests for new operations or expansions of existing businesses. Sixty-nine of these existing alcohol sales spots are restaurants and bars where the alcohol is consumed on-site, while 14 are mini-markets and other places where purchases are taken off-site, city records indicate.

O’Grady wondered how many more alcohol sales establishments are needed, saying Coast Highway appears to have more than enough alcohol sales establishments to serve the city’s needs.

Commissioner Tony Brandenburg told him that commissioners need to think beyond the residents’ desires and realize that Encinitas is a tourist destination.

“We’re a tourist destination for the daytime, (but) do we want to be a tourist destination for the night life?” O’Grady responded.

City planners said regulating the sale of alcohol is a complex process involving both state and city permit systems. New businesses that sell alcohol need a minor use permit — something that’s approved by the city’s Planning Commission — as well as permits from the state Alcoholic Beverage Control board, which regulates what type of alcohol they can sell and how they sell it.

The state board does have a process to limit the issuing of new permits in “over-served” areas — places where there’s an excessive number of alcohol sales operations — but those areas must meet certain state standards, including criminal activity rates, city associate planner Laurie Winter said.

Commissioners said that they would like more data on the state standards and whether the coastal highway corridor qualifies. They also asked staff members to research how many alcohol-serving establishments are in neighboring communities along Coast Highway; they sought data on recent city code enforcement activities; and they wanted to know what steps the state board can take to revoke existing alcohol sales permits.

Steve Chase, the city’s interim planning and building director, said city planners could have that research ready for the commission at a meeting in February. The commission could then have a “hearty discussion” on the data, and decide whether to ask the City Council to pursue permit restrictions, he said.

Brandenburg said he also was interested in having the city increase its fines for permit violations, such as when a bar exceeds its building occupancy limit. The first-time offenders currently face $100 fine. That’s “ridiculous when a speeding ticket is $400,” he said.

— Barbara Henry writes for The San Diego Union-Tribune.