New enforcement program seeks to discourage late-night bar issues


An Encinitas code enforcement officer will soon begin paying unannounced, late-night calls on bars and restaurants that serve alcohol in an effort to curb unruly behavior by patrons that has triggered complaints by residents.

The effort marks a first for the beachside community, where residents have complained to city officials in recent years about bar patrons who speak in loud voices, urinate in public, litter and cause other disturbances. Most of the problems occur in the late night or early morning hours.

In March, the Encinitas City Council authorized funding for a half-time code enforcement officer who will focus on issues related to the city’s 111 alcohol-serving establishments.

The officer will conduct daytime checks for compliance with city regulations, such as a requirement that servers and bartenders receive training in such topics as spotting and dealing with inebriated customers. The officer will also make periodic late-night checks from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., accompanied by a sheriff’s deputy.

At that March hearing, the council declined to approve a “deemed approved ordinance,” a new set of regulations that would have given the city additional enforcement powers to regulate bars and restaurants that serve alcohol.

Through the new inspection program, city officials hope to learn more about what is going on downtown and elsewhere along the Highway 101 corridor in the wee hours, since the number of official complaints filed with the city has been relatively small, said Planning Director Jeff Murphy.

A review by city staff found that over the past five years, 141 complaints were filed with the city regarding problems with alcohol-serving establishments, or about two per month, said a city report. The Sheriff’s Department reported 67 calls for service at alcohol-serving establishments during the same period, said the report.

“There seems to be a disconnect here, between what residents are saying here at the dais (at City Council meetings) versus what we have seen regarding complaints that have been filed,” said Murphy. “Hopefully, this pro-active enforcement program will give us the opportunity to go out into the community and see for ourselves what is happening in the downtown in the late-night and early morning.”

Businesses found in violation of city rules will receive a warning, and could face fines for additional violations, Murphy said. Repeat violators could be referred to the city attorney for legal action, he said.

Shirley Finch, who lives downtown and is a member of the Encinitas Citizens Committee, said there is no mystery — bad behavior by bar patrons has plagued her neighborhood for several years. The problem eases in the winter, but grows worse in May or June when the weather is warmer and more people come downtown for late-night fun, she said.

“It’s discouraging to say the least. It’s going on three years now, and these incidents are still happening. The citizens can’t fix it. The city (government) has to take control of their city,” said Finch, who supported the deemed approved ordinance.

But downtown business owners said they do take steps to prevent disruptive behavior by patrons, and that many problems attributed to customers of bars and restaurants are in fact caused by teenagers who are drinking illegally.

The Encinitas Hospitality Association, a coalition of downtown businesses, has hired security guards in the past to patrol city streets during late-night hours in an effort to curtail bad behavior, and the effort will soon gear up again, said Haven Dunn, co-owner and manager of the D Street Bar and Grill.

“The goal is to create a safe environment where we can operate our businesses, where people can have fun and we can prosper in the downtown area and co-exist with our neighbors,” Dunn said.

Along with training his staff on safe and proper procedures for serving alcohol, Dunn said, he sends employees out to patrol the area around his business to discourage illegal activity and pick up trash.

As for the new enforcement program and its late-night spot checks, Dunn said, “We welcome it 100 percent.”

“I think it’ll help to clear the air of the stigma that we as an entity, in the downtown area, are malicious and doing all these illegal things. We go above and beyond what’s required by law and we’re proud of that,” Dunn said.

But residents insist that it is the patrons of bars and restaurants who are causing most of the problems.

City officials must stick to the existing rules, and not allow alcohol-serving businesses to expand beyond their capacity, or allow too many new establishments, said Scott Carter, who owns a downtown Encinitas real estate business, and lives in Leucadia.

“You want the new blood in our area, it vitalizes, enriches what we have, but at the same time, you don’t want to lose what you have,” said Carter, referring to the quality of life prized by residents.

“Somebody has to step up and say ‘No.’ You have to take a stand,” said Carter. “Is there room for both? You betcha. But not at the pace and volume (bar and restaurant owners) want to do it.”

One of the first tasks for the new code enforcement officer, said Murphy, the planning director, will be to compile a list of phone numbers for residents to call when they have a problem with an alcohol-serving establishment.

In some cases, such as a fight, it might be appropriate to call 911 for police assistance. In other cases, residents will be directed to call city code enforcement so their complaint can be checked out the next day.

“(Residents) are experiencing problems, but not calling. But if there is situation with unruly, noisy behavior, give us a call. So we can investigate with the bar owner and see what’s going on,” Murphy said.