As the city moves forward on plans to change the way Birmingham's liquor licenses are regulated, City Manager Bob Bruner has a message for existing businesses: you have nothing to fear.
"I don't think the existing licensees have as much to fear as much as they think they do," said Bruner at the July 25 planning board meeting.
During last week's meeting, the planning board held a study session on a tentative plan to amend the city's zoning code so that any business looking to sell on-premise alcohol would only be permitted with a Special Land Use Permit (SLUP).
The plan was first introduced at the planning board's July 11 meeting by Bruner, who said new state rules have stripped local municipalities of their power to regulate liquor license transfers — making it even harder to regulate those licenses and the businesses who own them.
According to the new rules, approved by the Michigan Liquor Control Commission (MLCC) and effective July 1, businesses do not have to receive local approval to transfer a liquor license. Businesses only need approval from the MLCC.
Not only does this mean Birmingham's existing licenses can now be transferred at will, but licenses from other cities can also be transferred in — and city officials wouldn't know anything about it.
"We could literally have 500 liquor licenses in town," said city attorney Tim Currier.
Current businsses would need special permit with name change, change of owners
To solve this problem, Bruner is proposing that new businesses with liquor licenses receive SLUPs, which requires them to come before the Birmingham City Commission for final approval.
In addition, a SLUP would also be required should any business — new or existing — wish to change its name or owners.
While several planning board members said they were in favor of such a policy change — particularly in light of several public safety incidents earlier this spring — many raised concerns with how the plan could impact existing businesses.
Bruner said he hasn't yet met with business owners though he's promised to meet with them before a public hearing on the issue in front of the city commission on Aug. 13.
"The only part of this that makes me a little sketchy ... (is) I wonder whether a change in the name or a simple sign permit is excessive (for a SLUP)," said Scott Clein, a planning board member.
Bruner said the ultimate end-goal is to have every business with a liquor license under a SLUP. However, should an existing business need to go before the city commission, Bruner said they shouldn't have too many problems.
"I happen to think the existing establishments are going to get a pretty fair shake with this city commission," he said.
According to Planning Director Jana Ecker, if a business were looking to simply replace their sign because of regular wear-and-tear, they would not be required to obtain a SLUP under the new plan. Businesses wouldn't need SLUPs if they were doing simple renovations, either.
However, any changes to a business's site plans — such as if a restaurant wanted to add outdoor dining — would require a SLUP application.
"We need to be mindful and respectful of the investment (existing businesses) have made in our community," said planning board member Gillian Lazar. "I somehow feel that we musn't look like it's us versus them. We're looking more to the future and what may come in, and not punishing those who are already here."
Bruner believes residents will support plan
Bruner said he believes Birmingham's residents will back this plan, particularly considering the feedback he received after South Bar closed its doors earlier this month after a second shooting outside the downtown bar. The Birmingham City Commission will hold a public hearing on revoking South's liquor license on Aug. 13.
"The community was saying good riddance and God speed to the city who wants to put stricter control on liquor licenses," Bruner said. "I think that's where we're at as a community."
Resident Dorothy Conrad said she believes many of Birmingham's current liquor license holders are upset over the many public safety incidents downtown.
"I think you would find support on the part of them," she said. "It is important that we get a handle on this. It's good for the existing licensees. It doesn't harm them."
The planning board will discuss the issue again next Wednesday during a public hearing. The following Monday, on Aug. 13, the Birmingham City Commission will hold its own public hearing on the issue.
Bruner admitted the process is moving quick. "We're trying to close this window as quickly as we can," he said.