Local Planning Commission members had much sympathy for two businesses that would like to sell liquor but don't meet strict distance rules.
* Open Harvest grocery, near 16th and South, which wants to sell locally produced beers and could use the additional income.
* Walgreens at 48th and O streets, which is separated from the nearest residence by a parking lot and a 10-foot retaining wall.
But neither business meets the current hard and fast rule that businesses with a license to sell liquor or beer off-sale be at least 100 feet from homes, churches, schools, parks and state mental institutions. It is a rule that helps protect local neighborhoods, particularly in older areas of the city, from a proliferation of off-sale liquor businesses, supporters say.
The Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Commission voted 8-1 to maintain the current 100-foot rule, but suggested planning staff consider creating specific rules for exceptions that would allow for businesses like Open Harvest and Walgreens to get off-sale licenses.
“I do think we are having some nonsensical results as result of the way the ordinance is written,” said Commissioner Jeanelle Lust. “But the policy is working the way we want it to. It is a protection for the neighborhoods."
Lust and other commissioners suggested a deeper analysis of the ordinance and potential rules for waivers.
“I hope to continue the conversation and find a way to have our cake and eat it too,” said Commissioner Maja Harris.
The commission decision is a recommendation to the Lincoln City Council, which makes the final decision.
Lincoln attorney Mark Hunzeker, representing Walgreens, has proposed reducing the 100-foot distance to 50 feet. He noted a number of inconsistencies, where businesses got licenses in earlier eras under less strict rules.
The city also treats businesses differently in newer shopping centers, Hunzeker noted.
But city planner Brian Will pointed out that these shopping centers are generally physically buffered from neighboring residential areas.
The strict 100-foot rule is applied in shopping centers in the older areas of town, where no special buffers exist, he said.
Open Harvest could not meet even the proposed new rule, and would like the street itself that separates the business from nearby homes to count as the buffer.
Open Harvest needs to be a one-stop shopping experience, able to sell beer and wine, said Brande Payne, the grocery co-op's board chair.
“We would love to support local beer and wine producers,” said Payne, pointing out that more than 30 percent of the Open Harvest goods come from local sources.
During a public hearing Wednesday, representatives from several neighborhood associations opposed reducing the 100-foot rule, pointing out it would allow another 650 properties potential access to liquor licenses.
This 100-foot rule is one small protection for these older neighborhoods, said Pat Anderson, with NeighborWorks Lincoln and the Lincoln Policy Network, representing many neighborhood groups across the city.
Too many liquor stores can bring problems to these neighborhoods, she said.
The Witherbee Neighborhood, near the Walgreens store, “is well served (with package liquor stores) by the current policy,” said Richard Bagby, president of the association.
Within six blocks, there are six or seven businesses with off-sale licenses currently, he said.
Changing the rule solves no current problems for the neighborhood and might bring more problems, he said.
The commission needs to focus on the broad issue, the impact of a change, not on two narrow examples, said Shawn Ryba with NeighborWorks Lincoln.
His agency works with the dysfunction caused by the density of alcohol outlets, Ryba said. "This is not going to protect neighborhoods."