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Tampa City Council explores new rules for bars and nightclubs

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Published Oct. 18, 2013

TAMPA — After years of complaints about out-of-control nightclubs, the City Council moved Thursday to consider new rules to give the city more leverage over bars that tolerate lawlessness.

At the urging of council member Yvonne Yolie Capin, the council asked city attorneys to draft an ordinance to give the city authority to sanction alcohol beverage establishments that allow problems like under-aged drinking, serious crime on the premises, patrons who carry guns or drugs and perhaps violations of city building codes.

Here's how:

• First, the council would change the city's code to roll back bar closing times from 3 a.m. to midnight.

• Then the city would create a business permit that restaurants, bars or nightclubs could apply for to stay open until 3 a.m.

The business permit would have a series of rules attached to it that, if violated, could result in the permit being suspended.

There's a key exception: The rollback would not affect an undetermined number of bars, restaurants or nightclubs whose special use permits, a form of wet-zoning, have operating hours that were set by the City Council itself.

What's more, businesses with closing times set by the council probably would not be able to apply for a permit for a later closing time unless they applied to make the same change to their wet-zoning and the council approved it.

Because the new permits would be issued under the city's business regulations — not its land use rules — they would give the city more influence over the companies that operate the bars. As it stands, the wet-zonings belong to the landlords, who often are not involved in the business.

"We are grasping for a mechanism with which we can exert some control over the process so that when neighbors and citizens come to us, we have a remedy at hand," council member Harry Cohen said.

As discussed Thursday, the regulation would apply to businesses with alcohol consumption on premises — restaurants, bars and nightclubs — but not stores that do carry-out sales only.

Council members have explored strategies for regulating nightclubs since at least late 2011, after shootings at two Ybor-area nightclubs.

In one, gunshots wounded five men at Club Manilla, east of Ybor's entertainment district. In the other, a 20-year-old was shot dead and a 19-year-old was shot in the chest at the now-closed Empire Night Club.

Early last year, the council talked about banning patrons younger than 21 from nightclubs. Tampa clubs currently can admit customers who are 18 to 20 years old, but cannot serve them alcohol. The idea, however, never went anywhere.

In May, the city's cultural assets advisory committee, a project of Capin's, suggested the idea of rolling back the closing times to midnight and creating a separate permit that would allow bars to stay open to 3 a.m.

The potential rules discussed Thursday closely track a recommendation the city received from the Ybor City Development Corp.

"The bar owners and the people involved agreed to it," said Joseph Capitano Sr., who chairs the development corporation's public safety committee.

St. Petersburg and 18 other local governments around Florida have similar rules, city officials said.

But there are a lot of details to be determined: including what are the violations that could result in a suspension, how long would the suspensions last and who would enforce the new rule. The council is scheduled to get a look at a draft ordinance on Dec. 5.

Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3403, or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.