Plan would require new bars to get permits

Some say extra hoop would promote safety; others call it interference

Momentum is building to require bar and nightclub owners to receive a special permit to operate.

Mayor Mike Amyx said Friday that he is intrigued by the idea of changing the city’s zoning laws to require new bars and nightclubs to receive a special permit in order to give the city more ability to ensure they are neighborhood-friendly. The permit would allow the city to shut down a bar or nightclub if it did not meet a specific set of conditions.

“I think we need to be looking at the special-use permit option,” Amyx said. “These are land-use type of questions, and if we don’t have the regulations on the books that would allow us to deal with problems going on, then we have to look for new things to help us.”

Requiring a new permit likely will spark opposition from the bar and nightclub industry, said Phil Bradley, executive director of the Lawrence-based Kansas Licensed Beverage Association. He said city commissioners need to look more closely at existing nuisance laws that are on both the city and state law books before adding new regulations.

“And when they find someone breaking the law, they need to prosecute them to the fullest extent and punish them to the fullest extent, and then make it stick,” Bradley said. “That would take care of a lot of this.”

Concerns have been mounting about downtown safety after reports of several incidents of late-night violence in downtown. Last February two men were shot – one fatally – outside the Granada, 1020 Mass., following a concert at the nightclub. In May, seven shots were fired inside Last Call, 729 N.H., sending 200 people fleeing to the street. Lawrence police officers also have reported seizing about 20 weapons – including assault-style firearms – during the last several months.

The special-use permits would give the city broader powers to shut down problem nightclubs than what they have today. City attorneys have said the city does not have the ability to simply pull a liquor license from an establishment. Only the state’s department of Alcohol Beverage Control has that ability, although the city can request the department take such action.

The special-use permit would allow the city to shut down a bar or nightclub by declaring that those particular types of businesses are not appropriate for specific pieces of land. Bars and nightclubs are generally allowed to locate on any piece of property that is commercially zoned. The special-use permit would require city commissioners to examine each location on a case-by-case basis and would allow them to place specific conditions on each nightclub.

Bradley said giving city commissioners such power over a person’s livelihood would be troubling.

“It places the future of a person’s business and their income into the hands of a future commission that you don’t know anything about, nor have any knowledge of whether they may act honorably or not,” Bradley said.

Other city commissioners, though, are interested in at least exploring the possibility of a special-use permit system. Both Commissioners Boog Highberger and David Schauner said that it should be studied.

Details of such a system would have to be worked out, such as whether it would be required for all bars or nightclubs or only those of a certain size or location.

City Manager David Corliss said his staff is preparing a report on the use of special-use permits. He said such permits have been used to regulate bars in Overland Park and other cities.

“It is not an uncommon land-use tool when you have concerns about safety and neighborhood-friendly uses,” Corliss said.

But Corliss said there were questions about whether the city could require existing bars and nightclubs to have the new permits or whether the new permit system would apply only to nightclubs that opened in the future. Corliss said his staff is researching whether existing clubs would have to be grandfathered.

The staff also is continuing to study a different entertainment club licensing system that would not give the city the ability to completely close a drinking establishment but could limit its ability to serve as a dance club or live music venue. Possibilities for increasing the number of police officers that patrol the downtown area also are being explored, along with a stiffening of the city’s nuisance law.

A timeline for the report to be completed, however, hasn’t been announced. Amyx said he hopes to appoint a seven- or eight-member task force to study downtown security issues at next Tuesday’s meeting.