Bill McEwen

America’s perennial drunkest city just approved another place to buy booze

In his final column for The Bee, Bill McEwen takes exception with city leaders who continue to OK liquor sales even in the face of regulations that suggest areas already have enough.
In his final column for The Bee, Bill McEwen takes exception with city leaders who continue to OK liquor sales even in the face of regulations that suggest areas already have enough. Associated Press file

No one in a position of authority ever intended for Fresno to be named America’s drunkest city three times.

And Fresno’s many mayors and city council members never set a goal of having the highest concentration of retail stores licensed by the state to sell beer, wine and liquor among California’s 10 biggest cities.

But it happened just the same. And it happened with the approval of one conditional use permit at a time – usually in the name of job creation and property rights, and often over the objections of the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, school districts, neighbors and religious leaders.

It happened despite a formula in the state Business and Professions Code that says Fresno should have no more than one license for selling beer, wine and hard liquor for every 1,250 residents. It also happened despite no shortage of rules in the Fresno Municipal Code aimed at limiting the retail sale of booze.

What occurred July 19 at the Fresno Planning Commission helps tell this tale of city leaders who fail to contemplate the big picture – and the accumulative effects of their decision-making.

A proposal to build a convenience store with a gas station and a fast-food drive-through on the southwest corner of Figarden Drive and Bullard Avenue went before the Planning Commission. The owners additionally wanted approval of what is called a Type 20 license, which allows the sale of beer and wine for off-site consumption.

The city’s Planning Department opposed the conditional use permit, saying there already were 14 off-sale liquor licenses in a census tract that only called for 10. In addition, there are three stores now selling alcohol at that intersection, and Fresno Unified officials opposed allowing another one. Interestingly, the police department was neutral – neither supporting nor opposing – but offered recommendations on meeting compliance requirements.

Now here’s where things get interesting. The applicant’s representative had made a point of saying that beer and wine products would only take up 2 percent of the mini-mart’s shelf space. In other words, it would just be there as a convenience for customers. However, when asked if the project would be built if alcohol sales weren’t allowed, the response was an emphatic no.

What did the Planning Commission do? It approved the project and gave the OK for selling beer and wine.

The way these things work, either the mayor or the city council representative in the district of the project can ask for a vote by the city council.

That’s not going to happen.

Mayor Lee Brand in an email statement said that conditions imposed on the project “that limit the hours of operation and mandate compliance with noise and nuisance codes” were sufficient to protect the neighborhood. In an interview, District 2 Councilmember Steve Brandau said that booze sales would end at midnight and other restrictions would prevent the store from becoming a hangout for homeless people. Therefore, he was OK with selling beer and wine there.

Brand also pointed out that he and Councilman Paul Caprioglio recently opposed a change that would have enabled a convenience store at the corner of Gettysburg and Chestnut avenues to add hard liquor sales to its beer and wine license.

“In every case, we weigh the business owner’s wishes with the concerns of the surrounding neighborhood to come up with the best possible outcome,” Brand said.

Fair enough. While I disagree with Brand’s and Brandau’s decision, their positions are reasonable. They clearly are comfortable with having four stores selling beer, wine or distilled spirits at Figarden Drive and Bullard Avenue – even though the area, according to state standards, already has more than enough places to buy booze.

But I have a bigger question: At what point do city leaders stop thinking that convenience and liquor stores add to the commerce or fabric of the community?

They do little or nothing for economic development, and some of them quickly become neighborhood nuisances. Adding convenience stores in areas that lack them is fine. People appreciate the convenience. But there’s already a convenience store/gas station that sells beer and wine at the Figarden and Bullard Avenue intersection. What is gained with another one?

It’s not by coincidence that Fresno, a city saturated with places to buy booze, is America’s sixth-least educated city. Maybe someday area leaders and citizens will embrace the concept that strong economies go hand in hand with the development of human capital.

Encouraging young Fresnans to get a college degree or to acquire skills and seeing them accomplish those goals is how you reduce unemployment and build an economy with higher-paying jobs. Stressing that education is a lifelong endeavor is another key ingredient.

But adding another booze store in a place that already is the Triple Crown winner of the Drunkest City in America designation and in a neighborhood that already exceeds the state’s recommended number of liquor-selling establishments is plain stupid.

And it’s exactly the kind of thing that has held Fresno back for decades. One CUP at a time. One more liquor license at a time.

Brand says that his team is “working on a text amendment that will bring both new and existing establishments that sell alcoholic beverages for off-site consumption into compliance with the current development code by requiring a regular CUP renewal process for all ABC licenses.”

Let’s hope the proposed new rules have real teeth.

Hope, too, that we someday get planning commissioners who don’t swoon and fall all over themselves every time someone pitches another liquor stand dressed up as a mini-mart.

This is Opinion Page Editor Bill McEwen’s final column. He is retiring after 37 years with The Bee.