City Council adopts liquor regulations

As promised, the Fircrest City Council voted on Tuesday, Dec. 8, to adopt liquor regulations that implement the will of the voters.

Exactly how far we implemented their will is debatable, but it’s a good start.

To recap, 75 percent of Fircrest voters decided on Nov. 3 to end the Prohibition-era ban on serving beer, wine and spirits by the glass in the two business districts on Regents Blvd.

The Fircrest Planning Commission, a volunteer panel of citizens, took the first crack at drafting zoning regulations to implement the new law. The Commission held a public hearing and a public meeting in September and October, respectively. Commissioners heard primarily from residents from the Princeton Street area who are concerned about the impacts of alcohol-serving businesses on their neighborhood. As a result, the Commission drafted the following regulations for consideration by the City Council, which has the final say:

  • The sale, service and consumption of alcohol in the Neighborhood Commercial zone (again, the two shopping areas on Regents) is prohibited after 10 p.m.
  • Any business that obtains a liquor license is prohibited from depositing bottles and other trash in outdoor receptacles between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. (in other words, don’t dump bottles in the Dumpster at night).
  • Sale, service or consumption outdoors is prohibited.
  • Only licenses granted to certain kinds of restaurants are allowed. Taverns, lounges and nightclubs are prohibited.

I’ve heard from a lot more people than the Planning Commissioners, and I felt the Commission’s draft was a bit too restrictive. As the City Council prepared to make its final decision, I drafted an amendment that would make the following changes:

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You can decide whether to end the ban on liquor by the glass

One of the most common questions I hear from Fircrest residents involves our city’s partial prohibition on “liquor by the glass.” Specifically, they want more dining options in the area, and they often ask why the City Council doesn’t just change the law so that restaurants can offer a full beverage service with their menus, especially since we are the last city in Washington State to have a “dry” area, according to the Liquor Control Board.

Here’s the short answer: the City Council doesn’t have the authority. No City Council does. A Prohibition-era state law puts that decision solely in the hands of voters.

Given how many people have asked me about this, I looked for an opportunity to start the conversation. I got it on March 12, 2014, when we hosted a “visioning meeting” of the City Council. I’ve seen other city and county councils do these kinds of retreats where, instead of just talking about the day’s business, the elected leaders take the time to look at the big picture and pick some priorities to work on each year, so I suggested we dedicate a special meeting for this purpose. As you’ll see from the minutes, when it was my turn I requested that we start a conversation about the liquor issue. After a really interesting discussion, the Council voted to include that on our priority list.

prohibitionAs many of you now know, Fircrest’s situation is more complicated than most. Our city isn’t totally dry. The areas that were annexed in the 1990s were grandfathered in, meaning they were allowed to keep their liquor licenses. That includes the Fircrest Golf Club and such current businesses as Pint Defiance and Royal Thai Bistro (and the Emerson Courtyard shopping center).

The problem: If voters say no to liquor by the glass (as they did in 1975), those businesses would lose their grandfathered status, their liquor licenses, and their livelihoods. As Councilmembers, we agreed there’s no way we could let that happen.

So Councilmember Jason Medley and I, with the blessing of the full Council, went to Olympia several times during the 2015 session to ask for help. Our legislative delegation from the 28th Legislative District – Sen. Steve O’Ban, Rep. Christine Kilduff, and Rep. Dick Muri – sponsored a law that exempts the annexed areas from the new vote. Thanks to their help, we protected existing businesses along Mildred and Orchard streets from losing their licenses, while giving businesses along Regents Boulevard the opportunity to grow or locate here, with some limitations (more on that in a moment).

Now it’s up to you. Some Fircrest residents and business owners are circulating petitions to place the question of liquor by the drink on the Nov. 3 ballot. They need to turn in ab
out 700 signatures to the Pierce County Auditor’s Office in August, so there’s not much time. They have a campaign Facebook page called the Committee for a 21st Century Fircrest, and they can be reached at 21centuryfircrest@gmail.com. I’m told you’ll find petitions at TWO Cafe, Spring Lake Cafe, Exercise Science Center, Espresso Yourself and Fircrest Pharmacy.

Remember, a no vote maintains the status quo (meaning, no harm to any existing license holder). A yes vote removes the ban on sales by the glass, which enables businesses like Spring Lake Café and T.W.O to expand their offerings, and it removes an obstacle for other dining establishments to consider opening here.wine

Which brings me to this point: Fircrest is a residential, family-friendly community. I can assure you the Council often talks about the charming feeling you get in Fircrest, and our commitment to preserve that. In other words, nightclubs like those on Tacoma’s 6th Avenue would clash with our quiet neighborhoods.

The City Council has asked the Fircrest Planning Commission to develop draft zoning regulations that would limit the types of businesses that could operate here. Each Councilmember is assigned as the liaison to a city department every year, and my assignment this year happens to be the Planning Department. We anticipate the Planning Commission will take this up in September, and then they’d forward a recommendation to the City Council for another round of consideration. We will want to hear from residents on this issue, so I will post an update when the public hearings are scheduled. Aug. 15 update: The Planning Commission is now scheduled to review and discuss a draft recommendation on Sept. 1, and solicit public comment at a meeting on Oct. 6. Both meetings are open to the public. Aug. 29 update: The Planning Commission has scheduled a special meeting for this topic on Sept. 15.

This is a controversial topic for some, especially those who live next to the two commercial areas on Regents. We have to respect their interests. (Who wants to hear the sound of beer bottles being dumped in the garbage recycling bin at midnight?) I believe we can manage this issue like we do other issues – in that neighborly way in which we listen to each other and we look for ways to improve our quality of life while preserving the characteristics that make this such a charming place to live. Do you agree?

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Aug. 15 clarification: I want to make sure I’m not in any way implying that the full City Council supports lifting the prohibition. The full Council agreed that we should change the state law so that existing businesses in the annexed areas wouldn’t be harmed. At least a couple of members have said that doesn’t necessarily mean they will vote to repeal the prohibition.

Update 1: possible Mildred Street corridor compromise

As I reported earlier, we recently held a special joint meeting of the city councils of Fircrest and University Place. It was a long, but very productive meeting. Seriously – I walked out of there thinking, “Congress could learn something from us.”

I’ll get into details below, but here’s the gist: We made significant progress toward a possible compromise, but the question is whether there’s enough time to agree on numerous details before the grant application deadline, which is May 1.

The councils opened the meeting by agreeing that there was an “elephant in the room” – years of simmering tension between the two cities, and miscommunication and sometimes no communication. UP Mayor Ken Grassi graciously noted that his council has four new members – in effect, he said, it’s like having a new council – and that we should start a new and better relationship.

Then we got into a long discussion about UP’s proposal. UP wants to apply for a competitive federal grant that’s administered by the Puget Sound Regional Council. Lots of other jurisdictions also are applying for these limited grant dollars, so if Fircrest signs on as a co-applicant, then staff believes the grant would almost certainly score high enough to be approved.

One of the biggest concerns among Fircrest councilmembers was the proposal to squeeze two lanes down to one in front of Sunrise Center, and then open up more lanes again at the intersection with 19th Street.

UP City Engineer Jack Ecklund explained that the grant in question is for “non-motorized” transportation projects. It primarily pays for sidewalks, curbs and planting strips. He said we could not use this money to pay for a full lane of travel.

Another major concern on the Fircrest side is the UP proposal would require more space – and there’s no space on the UP (west) side of Mildred. That means we’d have to negotiate with property owners on the Fircrest side, and if that didn’t work, the UP officials said we would have to agree to use the power of eminent domain. I won’t speak for my council colleagues on here very often, but I didn’t hear anyone indicate a willingness to take property for this project.

Then a compromise was floated: what if we took the whole street down to three lanes – a travel lane in each direction and a center turn lane? That’s already the case further down Mildred. And we’ve confirmed that the City of Tacoma is considering doing that on Mildred on the other side of 19th. Continue reading

Fircrest and UP councils to hold joint meeting about Mildred corridor improvements

When it comes to Mildred Street, there are some things that the city councils of Fircrest and University Place agree on: it’s an important arterial for both cities. Its current condition between 19th Street and Regents Boulevard is, well, not exactly welcoming. And updating the street could spur development on both sides, which would benefit the tax bases of both cities.

Here’s what we don’t agree on: what to do about it.

UP is preparing to apply for a $675,000 regional transportation grant to pay for design and right-of-way to improve Mildred from 19th to Regents with sidewalks, curb and gutter, landscaping, streetlights and bike lanes. UP is asking Fircrest to sign on as a project co-sponsor, which boosts the chances of winning the grant. They also want Fircrest to pony up $126,000 to help with the matching grant. (UP would apply for another grant later to pay for most of the $1.7 million cost of construction.)

At first glance, the project sounds great. But as you’ll see, Fircrest officials have had a number of important questions about this project for several years. UP has yet to answer them. That’s why we’re doing something unusual.

The UP and Fircrest city councils will convene a joint meeting on Wednesday, March 14. The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. in UP’s Council Chambers, 3715 Bridgeport Way. The only agenda item is to discuss the Mildred corridor project. The meeting is open to the public.

There’s no question that corridor is vital to Fircrest’s future. We must increase our commercial tax base in order to stabilize our city’s budget and maintain a strong level of service to our 6,500 residents.

That said, UP’s proposed design is problematic.  Continue reading