The third time was the charm for Open Harvest in its quest to be able to sell beer and wine.
The Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Commission on Wednesday voted 5-4 in favor of recommending a change to city code that would reduce the required distance grocery stores would have to be from residential neighborhoods, churches, parks and other similar uses if they sell alcohol.
This was the third time the proposal had gone before the commission. At two earlier meetings, it failed to get a majority of five votes because of commissioner absences.
Current city code requires any business with an off-sale liquor license to be at least 100 feet from residential zoning in certain zoning districts. The change recommended by the Planning Commission would reduce that to 25 feet for grocery stores in those zoning districts, as long as the entrance door is at least 100 feet away. The change also would apply to stores that have a public street or alley between them and the residential district, even if the distance isn't 25 feet, as long as the entrance door is still 100 feet away.
Open Harvest, a cooperative natural grocer, sought the change because its current location near 17th and South streets is within 100 feet of homes, making it unable to get a liquor license, which store officials say put it at a competitive disadvantage.
The proposal generated a lot of opposition, especially from neighborhood groups that contend that the change will open up many more areas for potential alcohol sales, and many of those areas already are saturated with businesses that sell alcohol.
Open Harvest General Manager Amy Tabor said the store attempted to narrowly tailor the proposal so that it covers only grocery stores and not convenience stores, pharmacies or other similar businesses.
Some planning commissioners, however, said that was likely to open the city up to potential lawsuits in the future if it doesn’t make similar exceptions for other businesses.
“If we weaken the zoning code with this, I’m pretty sure we’re going to have an attorney up here” arguing for other exceptions, said Commissioner Tracy Corr, who voted against the proposal.
Commissioner Deane Finnegan said the current rules came about through a community collaboration between residents, business owners, city leaders and others, and there is no similar consensus this time around to change them.
“To me, we have to be cautious about changing an ordinance, which is law, when there is no widespread community consensus to do so,” she said.
Other commissioners, however, argued that simply sticking with the way things are is not always good policy.
Commissioner Tom Beckius argued that the model of a grocery store has changed, and selling alcohol is almost a requirement to be competitive.
“That’s the reality today for grocers, I think, at least for the majority of grocers,” he said.
Commissioner Maja Harris said that she heard a lot of commentary from opponents of the proposal that it could lead to unintended consequences. However, she said, “We can’t ignore the unintended consequences of our current ordinance.”
“I think it’s time for the ‘grocery store exception,’” she added.
Wednesday’s Planning Commission vote is not a final decision on the matter. That rests with the City Council, which will take up the proposal next month.