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Lawrence City Commission wants to consider a moratorium for rule on downtown liquor sales

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‘My biggest takeaway from Tuesday’s meeting is one of relief,’ John Brown’s Underground managing partner says

Post updated at 12:35 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 16:

Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday deferred an amendment to city code that would have allowed John Brown’s Underground to keep operating — but they want to look at ways to expand the opportunity to other businesses, too.

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A long-standing city rule requires establishments with liquor licenses to derive no more than 45% of their sales from liquor. Passed in 1994, the rule allowed exemptions for 29 existing locations. The code still exempts new bars that open in the same buildings as any of those original 29.

JBUG had maintained compliance with the rule in recent years by factoring in food sales from Wake the Dead, a brunch restaurant that was located directly above the bar. But the owner encountered health issues, and Wake the Dead closed its doors in 2021, leaving JBUG in a precarious position and out of compliance with that ratio.

However, city staff members have raised concerns that other businesses are likely going to be in similar situations when their liquor licenses come up for renewal.

JBUG had proposed a text amendment to city code, which was then modified by planning staff. City planner Kyle Kobe explained some details, including that businesses may need to seek special use permits to be in compliance with up to 90% of their sales in liquor. Kobe also explained what the process to get a special use permit entails: Neighbors receive notice, there are public hearings, and the city commission hears and discusses them before potentially approving them.

City staff members also recommended that the amendment only apply to bars up to 3,000 square feet. “This is intended to ensure that large scale bars or nightclubs would not be able to seek a reduction to the alcohol sales standards,” Kobe said.

Dante Colombo, managing partner at JBUG, told commissioners he was born and raised in Lawrence, and he first spoke to the commission at age 9 when his class wanted to paint a mural on a building downtown.

“I’m also here for the continued health and vibrancy and opportunity of downtown Lawrence,” Colombo said. “So now, at 27, I hope to continue be a part of the story.”

Dante Colombo, managing partner at John Brown’s Underground, speaks to the Lawrence City Commission during the Nov. 15, 2022 meeting. (Screenshot/City of Lawrence YouTube)

Mayor Courtney Shipley opened the discussion Tuesday saying that she appreciated all the members of the public she’d heard from and had “really fruitful and pleasant” discussions leading up to the meeting.

In response to a question from Shipley, Deputy City Attorney Randy Larkin said there have been some special use permits pulled if there have been complaints, or businesses have been out of compliance with their permits.

Commissioners debated the possibility of the text amendment, a special use permit, and what it would all entail.

A few people addressed the commission in public comment. Lawrence resident Tom Cravens said he was “not sure it is useful to have such arcane restrictions.” He said he’d support the text amendment and would think about what was good for the overall economic health of downtown.

And Lawrence resident Chris Flowers noted that the commission earlier in the meeting had passed a proclamation for Small Business Saturday. “Well, why don’t you support small business now?”

Jennifer McKnight, owner of Arizona Trading Co., said she would discourage any changes that could make downtown Lawrence “seem more dangerous.” She said downtown has a good balance of retail stores and bars and restaurants, and she said it was because of the long-standing ordinance. One exception could lead to more exceptions and effect the downtown landscape greatly, she said.

An owner of Yarn Barn, Jim Bateman, said he didn’t want his comments to be taken as opposition to JBUG, but he thought the commission should defer the item for a broader discussion and “until there’s a chance to review the bigger picture and see if there are changes that need to be made.”

Mary Holt, owner and operator of Henry’s Upstairs — and soon to be Grounded Coffee, opening next week, she hopes — encouraged the commission to approve the amendment. She said bars like Henry’s and JBUG aren’t overserving patrons, and weren’t contributing to a problematic downtown bar district.

Ultimately, Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen said she thinks a broader conversation is due, and she noted that the city’s entire land development code is currently under review. Commissioner Brad Finkeldei said he was generally not a fan of special use permits; however, he said he thinks the SUP could be “a step that would allow us to continue to look at this as we move into the land development code.”

Commissioner Bart Littlejohn said he thought it was a good thing to work out a way to make sure “a business that has been thriving, well-known, and for all intents and purposes, does the right thing” can continue to operate.

But Larsen said she wanted to get additional public engagement, and she wasn’t willing to pass the amendment as written Tuesday without it.

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Larkin said there will likely be other businesses in similar situations to JBUG. City Clerk Sherri Riedemann during a previous commission meeting had said she expected that some businesses will likely be in similar situations since the state began to allow to-go liquor sales amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Larkin suggested that the city could consider a “moratorium” on the codes on liquor sales for existing businesses and revisit the topic in the future, but if the commission went that route, the change would need to apply districtwide rather than to a single business.

He said the process could look like it did when the city was considering parklets — restaurants were allowed to keep using parking spaces for outdoor dining amid COVID-19 while city staff worked to get a more permanent solution in place.

Businesses can continue as they are, and then the city can revisit this code and revise “when we have a better idea of what exactly it is we’re doing,” Larkin said.

Commissioner Amber Sellers said a moratorium could take the stopgap piece of an SUP away, and create more opportunity for other businesses in the process.

Larkin told commissioners he thought staff could have an agenda item on a moratorium ready to go for one of the commission’s December meetings, in time to allow John Brown’s Underground to keep operating.

JBUG’s current liquor license, which is a six-month extension of its previous two-year license, is set to expire Jan. 15.

Colombo, reached via email after the meeting, said that his team had been fairly confident prior to the meeting that the proposal they’d been working on with the city’s planning department since the beginning of this year “would succeed in serving as a narrow solution to one part of a larger conversation,” he said. “As this is an issue that will continue to require careful evaluation, we and planning staff believed that the Commission would be amenable to the kind of oversight that a Special Use Permit would allow them.

“With that said, I am deeply encouraged to see that the community’s response to this issue has clearly been successful in conveying the worth of John Brown’s Underground and its peers to downtown Lawrence,” Colombo continued. “If the specific policy vehicle by which we can continue our work needs more time and discussion to come into focus, we are certainly not opposed to that. Overwhelmingly, my biggest takeaway from Tuesday’s meeting is one of relief. My team and I understand that we have a vote of confidence from our City’s lawmakers and a measure of commitment to our continued operation.”

Future Lawrence City Commission meeting agendas will be available on the city’s website.

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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