Update: 2.16.12 – video recording of session embedded below.
Whitewater’s taken more than one bad turn in recent years — sadly, it took another one Monday night.
Introduction. Following a unanimous January denial of a conditional use permit to operate a sports bar on the main business district in Whitewater, the city’s Planning Commission this week unanimously denied the applicant’s significantly-modified request to operate a restaurant that would serve alcohol.
(For a discussion of that earlier decision, please see The Overpowering Fear of a …Sports Bar.)
I’ve often thought that bad goes to worse — this decision proves the truth of that adage.
And yet, it’s not merely a decision against economic liberty — it’s more than that. In his attempt to justify the denial of the new request, Whitewater’s planning commissioner and council member Lynn Binnie offers an argument about alcohol that is deeply mistaken.
It’s not that Binnie’s not smart — he most certainly is. It’s not that he’s not sincere — I have no doubt that he is sincere.
It’s that if his argument should be right, then most of what Whitewater’s doing now has been wrong.
The Commissioner & Councilmember’s Basis for Rejecting a Restaurant that Serves Alcohol. To his credit, commissioner-councilmember Binnie correctly dismisses flimsy arguments over parking, etc. About that he’s surely correct –they’re trivial objections, and transparent efforts to impede the business on any grounds whatever. The former establishment operated just fine without difficulty over parking, deliveries, or — for that matter — liquor sales.
Here’s Binnie’s argument for denial, in excerpt, during the discussion:
….if this applicant wishes to run a restaurant there without a liquor license, this application wouldn’t even be in front of us…it’s the liquor license that’s the critical matter….
I don’t doubt that the applicant would want to run a respectable business. But the reality, as has been said, is that when patrons over-indulge in alcohol, there’s not sometimes a lot that the license-holder can do to control the behavior….
(The recording is not online — I will add it when it becomes available on Vimeo. Updated 2.16.12)
Plan Commission Meeting 02/13/2012 from Whitewater Community TV on Vimeo.
All the careful discussion from an experienced applicant, applicant’s attorney, architect, and the current business owners, and a commission-councilmember reduces all of it to a question of alcohol.
Commission-councilmember Binnie’s Assumption. One big assumption stands out — to serve alcohol is to facilitate — necessarily — over-indulgence. For Binnie, that’s an inevitable consequence of a liquor license at this proposed establishment.
The Failure of the Status Quo. This contention is, in fact, a startling admission. It’s not that people don’t think this way (they do), or say as much (they do) — it’s that they are seldom so candid about regulation when on camera.
Consider what Binnie’s sincere admission says, assuming (for now) that his view should be correct.
It says that Whitewater has done so poor a job of managing supposed risks from alcohol — despite endless boasting about not tolerating problems — that this city’s leaders fear even a restaurant with a liquor license on the biggest business avenue in the middle of the biggest business district in town.
I don’t believe that there’s such a risk, but if this should be
right, it says that existing policy has been a failure.
Previously, Binnie’s listed a parade of horribles that may result from over-drinking (even though he cannot quantify how frequently they will occur). Despite the enumeration, so carefully designed to sway emotions, how has a punitive and prohibitionist approach stopped the supposed problems he still frets over?
By his own account, it hasn’t.
The Truth about Public Health. Binnie contends it’s alcohol that’s at stake, but he could not be more wrong.
It’s not, and has never been, about alcohol – it’s about alcoholism and other addictions. These are not the same, and conflating them only avoids an effective solution to a real problem.
If commissioner-councilmember Binnie thinks alcohol is the problem, then I have a proposal for him….
Why Not Ban All Alcohol Sales in the City? If Binnie should be right, and alcohol sales lead to problems in the center of town that can be prevented only by a denial of a liquor license, then why not take away all the existing liquor licenses in town?
Why stop with one license, and leave so many other residents vulnerable to nearby establishments with liquor licenses? If
a councilmember believes alcohol itself is the problem, does he not owe it to this community to save all neighborhoods from that problem?
A supposed protection should not be extended only to nearby senior-home residents, but to all the city.
Failure to do so, by consequence of that reasoning, would be to leave thousands of residents vulnerable to the putative scourge of alcohol, itself.
Whitewater’s next Common Council meeting is February 23rd. If Binnie believes in what he’s saying (and I have no doubt that he does), why not propose a ban on alcohol in the entire city?
There would be a business cost to a ban, but if one truly worries over health, safety, and security, should the community not bear that cost? Wouldn’t failure to do so put a price on safety that would otherwise be improved under a ban?
I don’t believe that license-denial or a ban will improve public health, but for those who do, I would ask: do you value health, safety, and security less than someone’s pocketbook? What a cold calculation that would be.
Making Whitewater Dry Won’t Make it Dry. What if all Whitewater were dry? There would still be drinking, there would still be alcoholism, and our existing approach would still be nothing more than show.
Restaurants are Safe Environments. It’s embarrassing that I have to say as much, but is Whitewater so dull and pinched it thinks a restaurant is a problem? It’s safer than just about any alternative — including some homes.
The View from the Community Development Authority. It’s almost a parody of sense that a representative of the CDA spoke at the meeting about alcohol policy in the city.
That’s too funny — not content with a town of empty stores, dilapidated buildings, a half-empty business park (so vacant they plant corn in the lots!), a failed tax-incremental district, and dodgy excuses for failure to understand simple conflicts of interest while building a multi-million-dollar taxpayer-funded project, now one hears about…alcohol policy!
I well-understand that community development is broader than business development. But if one truly understood anything about community development, one wouldn’t be arguing for a reactionary, prohibitionist alcohol policy that (1) does nothing to improve public health while (2) perpetuating vacancy.
Business Liberty. If you can’t have a new restaurant with a liquor license on Main Street in Whitewater, you can’t have it anywhere that makes sense.
Why Not Try Harder to Make Whitewater Unmarketable to the World Beyond? Decisions like this make Whitewater laughable to sensible people thinking about relocating to a hip, prosperous, successful town.
Listening to a lengthy, somnolent recitation of all the worries over a bar from a nearby business owner – worries about pool tables, pub food, etc. — is like a bad re-enactment of a scene from The Music Man — trouble, that starts with ‘t’ and rhymes with ‘p’ that stands for pool…
A new restaurant can’t sell alcohol when a prior establishment at the same location did?
The Reflexive Approach. This may be the least-thoughtful Planning Commission Whitewater has ever seen.
Not one from among the commissioners even ponders aloud a counter-argument to councilmember and commissioner Binnie’s position.
Even if Binnie should be right, is there no one on this commission even willing to offer a counter-argument?
Uniformity this pervasive fails Whitewater.
Neither personal nor economic health benefits from decisions like these.