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Tampa City Council approves major overhaul of rules on alcohol sales

TAMPA — Meeting for the last time, the outgoing Tampa City Council on Tuesday approved a sweeping overhaul of the city's rules for businesses that want to sell alcohol.

Council members voted 4 to 3 to approve the changes, with Charlie Miranda, Yvonne Yolie Capin and Mary Mulhern voting no.

They said the council should take more time to address the concerns of neighborhood leaders who are worried about losing their voice with the city.

"I don't see any reason why we're doing this today," Mulhern said. "It's disappointing, and I'm sorry we're not paying more attention to our constituents."

Voting for the changes were the four council members leaving the board at the end of this week: Thomas Scott, Gwen Miller, Joseph Caetano and Curtis Stokes.

Miranda said it would not have been a problem to delay the decision for a month or two. He was confident that the council's new members, who are being sworn in Friday, would quickly get up to speed on the issue.

"The individuals that are coming in are just as intelligent as we are," he said.

The update changed two long-standing city rules on special-use permits for alcohol, once commonly known as "wet zonings."

In the past, every such request came to the City Council for a public hearing. Also, unless the council waived the rule, every business selling alcohol was subject to a 1,000-foot setback from similar businesses, homes, churches and schools.

Under the new rules, some applications will not come to the City Council, nor will surrounding property owners be notified of the requests, nor will they include mandatory setbacks.

The requests that fall into this category are for establishments that sell alcohol as a sideline to their main business. They include convenience stores, gas stations, grocery stores, hotels with more than 100 rooms and bowling alleys with more than 12 lanes.

Instead of being decided by the City Council after a public hearing, applications from such businesses will be considered by the city's zoning administrator. If the application does not comply with every restriction set by the city, it goes to the City Council.

City officials spent a year crafting the changes, which are designed to stimulate development by making the process less costly, burdensome and bureaucratic.

But critics said the changes will allow convenience stores selling beer and wine to open next door to homes, school or parks without notice to surrounding property owners and without a public hearing.

"Some of the changes that are being proposed would not give residents a chance to come down and speak to you on the issues," said Margaret Vizzi, who chairs the zoning committee of Tampa Homeowners, an Association of Neighborhoods.

"It is taking away our ability to talk to you," said Sue Lyon, a longtime Tampa neighborhood activist. "You've been our friend and partner in helping the city of Tampa become a better place over the years. We don't want that relationship to end."

But city officials say the new rules include safeguards to make sure neighborhoods are not disregarded.

"The intent of this is not to have the Wild West out there as far as alcohol," city zoning administrator Catherine Coyle said. "There are very limited uses with very restrictive requirements that are placed upon them, and if you don't meet those conditions, you come for a public hearing."

Requests for more alcohol-intensive establishments — bars, lounges, nightclubs, liquor stores and many restaurants — would go before the City Council no matter what.

In addition, depending on where they are in the city, these businesses would have to observe minimum setbacks — 1,000 feet in much of the city, less in the most urban areas, including the West Shore business district, the area around the University of South Florida and along major mixed-use corridors.

Before Tuesday, Tampa's rules were among the most restrictive — if not the most restrictive — of any big city in Florida, according to the city's staff.

Hillsborough school officials had asked the council to keep the 1,000-foot setbacks from schools. That's double the distance required in unincorporated Hillsborough County, according to city officials. In St. Petersburg and Sarasota, there is no separation requirement if the sale of alcohol is secondary to the main business of the retailer.

Supporters of the changes also noted that the City Council routinely waived the distance requirements, doing so for 24 of 26 convenience stores from 2007 to 2010.

Those approvals, however, didn't come cheap. Between the filing fee and the costs of site plans, surveys and professional fees, a waiver can cost up to $20,000 and can delay a store's opening by four to five months.

The current council scheduled the special meeting on Tuesday to consider the proposed changes rather than let the decision carry over to the new council. Postponing the vote, Scott said, could have added months or more to the process while the new council members became familiar with the proposal.

Tampa City Council approves major overhaul of rules on alcohol sales 03/29/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 29, 2011 11:13pm]
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