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Negotiations on Modifying Restaurant Limits Face Hurdle

By Mark LiebermanCurrent Staff Writer

Negotiations stalled this week surrounding the expiring moratorium on liquor licenses for restaurants in Georgetown.

The advisory neighborhood commission opted not to vote on an informally agreed-upon proposal, instead calling for the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to extend the moratorium as is by 60 days instead of allowing it to expire in February. Commissioners said they hoped the extra time would allow the parties to reach a consensus.

Representatives of the neighborhood commission, Georgetown Business Improvement District and local citizens association have been negotiating a proposed end to the 27-year moratorium’s cap on liquor licenses for restaurants in hopes of spurring more establishments to open in the neighborhood. The moratorium currently prevents new restaurants, taverns and nightclubs from securing liquor licenses and maintains a cap on restaurant-class licenses at 67.

Last week, the BID finished drafting a proposal that calls for removing Georgetown’s restaurant cap while increasing protections against abuse and mismanagement. The document called for the neighborhood commission and citizens association to weigh in with formal approval.

But the citizens association instead voted Nov. 24 on a proposal with different terms. And then at Monday’s monthly meeting, the neighborhood commission voted unanimously to ask for the two-month extension to allow for further negotiations.

Commissioner Bill Starrels said the decision came after the citizens association floated its alternate version of the proposed terms for ending the moratorium. Taking into account the commission’s proposed amendments of its own, said Starrels, the extension will allow for more time to reach a mutually agreeable solution.

Citizens Association of Georgetown president Bob vom Eigen told The Current he and his fellow board members felt they could not support the BID’s proposal without revision. In particular, the association wants to see more accountability for businesses that don’t comply with — or refuse to negotiate on — settlement agreements drafted in response to protests from the community.

After the meeting, vom Eigen learned that the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board is unlikely to issue a general ruling that penalizes businesses for failing to act in good faith. But he hopes a comparable regulation will eventually be reached.

Vom Eigen said the citizens association plans to continue negotiations, and he personally expects that a mutually agreeable solution can still be reached by the time the moratorium expires, whether in February or April.

“I don’t want to walk away from it,” vom Eigen said. “I want to see if we can save it.”

He said the citizens association’s board decided to prioritize getting a vote on the subject out in the open as opposed to deferring the vote on the BID’s plan.

For its part, the neighborhood commission won’t proceed with a vote until the proposal to remove the restaurant cap has addressed questions pertaining to tighter restrictions, enforcement and maintenance of peace and quiet in the neighborhood, commissioner Tom Birch told The Current after the meeting.

“I would say the thing that’s most essential is making sure there’s strength and validity” to the proposal, Birch said.

During the meeting, Birch acknowledged that the moratorium was created under neighborhood conditions that no longer exist. Concerns about the neighborhood serving as a regional entertainment district to the detriment of residential stability are no longer relevant, he added.

Starrels pointed out that the current moratorium doesn’t extend above the 1600 block of Wisconsin Avenue NW, but the Business Improvement District’s proposal covers a wider swath of the neighborhood. It lays out expectations on noise, trash and hours of operation and includes a requirement that the three organizations meet every six months to assess whether businesses are respecting the terms of the agreement.

BID president and CEO Joe Sternlieb said news of the neighborhood commission and citizens association votes surprised him. To his understanding, all parties had agreed with the terms laid out in his organization’s document. Now he plans to return to the BID board to see whether its members will be willing to participate in further negotiations.

“I don’t know what new we’re going to agree to,” Sternlieb said. “There’s no new information.”

The moratorium negotiations have taken 15 to 20 hours thus far, Sternlieb said. He thought the time was productive.

“I think generally our organizational philosophy is to work closely with the community to come up with consensus positions,” Sternlieb said. “We don’t respond well with people trying to dictate terms to us, and we never try to dictate terms to anybody else.”

Sternlieb said members of the Business Improvement District’s board have told him informally that they think the proposal unduly restricts new businesses access to the community. He’s not sure they’ll be willing to further tighten the restrictions against businesses. And he’s certain the BID will not back down from wanting to see the moratorium relaxed.

“I think we’re stuck,” Sternlieb said. “I just don’t know what more we can do.”

This article appears in the Dec. 2 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.