Janesville eyeing revamped alcohol rules

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Neil Johnson
Tuesday, July 1, 2014

JANESVILLE--After months of policy wrangling and public forums, a Janesville city committee has pushed forward two alcohol proposals that business owners and anti-substance abuse advocates say they agree on.

Later this month, the city council will chew on stripped-down versions of two alcohol-sale ordinances proposed earlier this year that were aimed at boosting retail alcohol licenses and easing the city's longstanding separation rule on retail alcohol sales.

One ordinance, which the city's alcohol license advisory committee forwarded to the council Tuesday, would allow grocery retailers to display and sell a limited amount of alcohol without creating physical separations.

Another ordinance, which the committee pushed forward earlier this month, would allow the city to use the state's annual city population count instead of a 10-year census count to set a quota on Class A alcohol licenses for places that sell alcohol, such as grocery stores or liquor stores.

That ordinance also would allow businesses to petition for the city to issue licenses beyond its current quota of 19, according to the proposal. The city now has all 19 licenses issued and, by its own rules, cannot issue more.   

City officials say the ordinances are meant to spur new businesses and make it easier for existing niche businesses to expand products they offer, but neither goes as far as earlier proposals to loosen city reins on liquor sales.

“We were probably more aggressive to the changes coming out of the gate,” said Ryan Garcia, the city's economic development coordinator.

Earlier this year, the city recommended an outright end to its longstanding separation rule that requires gas station and grocery stores to use permanent walls and separate entrances and checkouts to divide alcohol sale areas from main store areas.

City staff has since scaled back that proposal to allow licensed grocery retailers to display and sell alcohol without separations in up to an “80 square-foot” area in stores.

The new ordinance only extends to retailers whose primary business is selling groceries. It's not intended to apply to gas stations or pharmacies, Garcia said.

“The intent was not that suddenly your convenience stores would have those privileges,” he said.

Garcia said the new proposal wouldn't allow new retailers to set up large, non-separated alcohol-sale areas, but it would help niche retailers such as home brew suppliers and boutique grocers beef up their offerings to customers.

Lynette Wirth, general manager at Basics Cooperative Natural Foods, said the store has weighed in on the new alcohol rules and is “excited” about the latest separation proposal. 

“It's satisfactory for us. We're just looking to supply organic beer and wine that our customers have asked for,” Wirth said. “We're not looking to put in a local liquor store or take away from other businesses. It's a small footprint.”

The proposal, unlike earlier versions, includes no rules for existing self-checkout areas at grocery stores.

The city also has reined in an earlier proposal to relax Class A retail alcohol license quotas to one license per 2,500 people.

The council shot down that proposal earlier this year. Critics said it would usher in a glut of new businesses that could water down sales for all local retailers.

The new proposal would allow the city the option to adjust the quota on Class A licenses based on annual state population counts, but it would initially hold the line on the current quota at one license per 3,500 residents.

“We don't immediately gain licenses, but we do have a potential within a 10-year window if we grow in population to be more responsive to that,” Garcia said.

Under the new proposal, businesses could lobby the council to exceed the license quota, although “not on a perpetual and permanent, basis,” Garcia said.

Garcia said in the last year, about four businesses have asked the city for Class A licenses.

He said the council could grant licenses beyond a quota if businesses' plans made a compelling case that they would add economic value to the community.   

Sarah Johnson, coalition director for the youth advocacy group Janesville Mobilizing 4 Change, called the proposal to strip away retail alcohol separation “great middle ground” to help businesses but curb alcohol sales to youths.

Few other communities have a separation rule for retail alcohol sales, but Johnson said her group's studies show Janesville has had 100 percent compliance on underage sales and a youth-alcohol use rate 10 percent lower than other communities in Rock County.

“We know separation has been successful at lowering youth alcohol use,” she said.

Johnson believes the new quota proposal wouldn't stifle future retail development. She said it's “a better idea than lifting the quota totally and just letting the chips fall where they may.”

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