Tampa to consider new rules on bars' closing times

Bartender Kristy Bonanno chats with customers at Tequilas Taco Bar in Ybor City.
Bartender Kristy Bonanno chats with customers at Tequilas Taco Bar in Ybor City.
Published Dec. 1, 2013

TAMPA — It could be one of the biggest changes in years to how drinks are poured at bars, restaurants and nightclubs in the city of Tampa.

On Thursday, the council is scheduled to discuss proposed rules to give the city more leverage over businesses that serve alcohol but look the other way when the clientele starts breaking the law.

It's a question that city officials and bar owners have struggled with since at least late 2011, when shootings at two Ybor City-area clubs left one man dead and six wounded.

What they've come up with is the idea of issuing a new business permit to nightclubs, bars and restaurants with state licenses to serve drinks.

A first ordinance, now in draft form, would roll back bar closing times from 3 a.m. to midnight.

This would only affect businesses that serve drinks to be consumed on the premises — not places like grocery or convenience stores that sell alcohol for carry-out only.

Also, the rollback would not affect bars, restaurants or nightclubs that have special use permits, a form of wet-zoning, in which the City Council set the operating hours itself.

A second ordinance would create an "extended hours" business permit that restaurants, bars and nightclubs could apply for to stay open until 3 a.m.

The appeal of the change is that alcohol beverage zonings are very hard to revoke when a particular bar creates problems for its neighbors.

Not only that, the wet-zonings go with the land, meaning that city land-use approval to sell beer, wine or liquor can be transferred from a good, responsible property owner to a bad, careless one.

But as proposed, the extended-hours permit would be "a privilege, not a right," according to the ordinance. It would have to be renewed every year.

The city also could suspend or revoke the permit if:

• The permit-holder lets customers drink or the business stay open after 3 a.m.

• The business had, within a 12-month period, any two violations of certain laws — possession of felony controlled substances, the unlawful possession or use of a gun, selling alcohol to minors, homicide, manslaughter, aggravated battery, aggravated assault, sexual battery or felony lewd and lascivious behavior — anywhere on their property.

• The business had four cases of criminal possession of marijuana within six months.

The first suspension would be for 30 days, the second for 60. Beyond that, the permit could be revoked. Appeals would go to the City Council.

Looking at the sweep of the proposal, some business owners have wondered whether it goes too far.

In February, the nonprofit Ybor City Development Corp. sent the city a letter saying it supported making nightclubs a regulated business that would require them to have a city business operating permit and be subject to regulation.

But in November, the YCDC sent another letter, saying the goal is to have a "tool to stop irresponsible nightclub operators who become a danger to the public."

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"In our view, broadening the provision beyond the 'nightclub' definition will doom it," YCDC chairman Walter Aye and past chairman David Scott wrote. "After significant study and debate we have support from many bar and nightclub owners in Ybor City for a simple ordinance allowing City Council to immediately stop 'nightclub' operation when serious red lines are crossed."

But to expand the proposal beyond nightclubs to other wet-zoned businesses or to enact a "blanket" change in operating hours would undermine the current level of support and invite "endless protest and legal challenge," they said. "Our communities will remain without a tool to deal with high-risk 'nightclubs.' "

Land-use consultant Stephen Michelini, who represents many restaurants before the city, said there are a lot of unanswered questions about a change that could "wreak havoc" on established restaurants.

"It seems to be an issue where there are some problems with very specific locations, but I don't think the remedy for correcting them is to change the entire ordinance," he said. "There are other means to get people's attention."

Michelini said a lot of his clients weren't even aware that the change was in the pipeline. "When I told them, they said, 'Oh my God. What?' "

That's what worries City Council member Lisa Montelione. She says this is the wrong time of year to consider this kind of change for bars and restaurants, which are in their busiest, most lucrative season of the year and are focused on the demands of their holiday customers.

"The idea that this is going to be put in place when they're working the hardest to eke their way out of a struggling economy, I think, is not fair to them," said Montelione, who plans to ask that the proposal be delayed.

But council member Yvonne Yolie Capin said the proposal has not come out of nowhere.

In May, she noted, the city's cultural assets advisory committee, proposed rolling back the closing times to midnight and creating a separate permit that would allow bars to stay open to 3 a.m.

And on Oct. 17, the council had a detailed discussion before voting to ask for a draft of the proposed ordinances.

"We have been discussing this on City Council for three years," Capin said.

She said she recognizes how big and economically important restaurants and bars are. A key idea, she said, is to achieve a level of comfort through regulations that are very specific, not subjective.

"That's very, very important," Capin said. "I do want us to be very careful going forward."