Noise, Liquor Rules Highlight Nighttime Economy Recommendations
Montgomery County's Nighttime Economy Task Force on Monday finalized recommendations for improving the county's nightlife scene with an emphasis on new rules that would allow for more bars. Now, restaurants in the county generally must ensure food sales match alcohol sales. The Task Force will recommend that ratio be adjusted to 60 percent alcohol sales and 40 percent food sales in addition to the creation of a "social venue license" that would cost more to obtain but wouldn't include a mandated ratio. Much of the discussion in the group's final meeting on Monday centered around the ratio and the purpose of the county's Department of Liquor Control in general. Montgomery County operates as a control alcohol jurisdiction, with all alcohol purchases coming from a central DLC warehouse. That has led to complaints from restaurant owners about the availability of special orders, such as craft beer, and the time it takes to fill an order. Evan Glass, a Silver Spring activist and prospective County Council candidate, said the group should talk about how necessary the DLC is. It's a contentious issue, in large part because the DLC contributes $25-$30 million a year to the county's General Fund. It also recently opened a new warehouse in Gaithersburg. Glass suggested the DLC should at least keep a portion of that contribution to hire more employees who could help it be more responsive. Most agreed that recommending wholesale changes, or the dissolution of the DLC, was too big a task for the Task Force. The final recommendation, when it comes out in the Task Force's final report next week, will call for a study of the DLC's effectiveness from the Council's Office of Legislative Oversight. The social venue license is meant to mirror D.C.'s tavern license, which applies no ratios and simply requires a bar serve food. Alan Pohoryles, the owner of Tommy Joe's and Roof, said the idea gives Montgomery County a chance to compete with bars in D.C. The county wants to compete with D.C. and Arlington for young professionals who have flocked to those areas. County Executive Isiah Leggett, Councilmember Hans Riemer and other policy makers came up with the Task Force to devise ways to improve nightlife and attract those residents. It has been a hot button issue since the county's new focus on it hit the news in February. Heather Dlhopolsky, a Bethesda attorney and chair of the Task Force, made it clear the Task Force wasn't just about catering to the 20-34 year-old crowd, citing the significant number of empty nesters moving to downtown Bethesda. So far, Riemer and others on the Task Force haven't heard much in the way of opposition to what are anticipated to be controversial, "way of life" changes for the well-entrenched suburban community. The Task Force will recommend the county extend the hours of operation for venues with alcohol licenses an hour, to 3 a.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and the Sundays before Monday federal holidays and 2 a.m. on weeknights. That would match D.C. and Prince George's County and prevent what Pohoryles said restaurant owners call "the mad dash," the period when Montgomery County bar goers get in their cars and drive to D.C. for another hour of alcohol service. The rule would keep the half-hour "grace period," in which last call would actually be half-an-hour before closing time. Also part of the bar-friendly recommendations are changes to the county's noise ordinance in specific urban areas. The Task Force will recommend increasing the allowable noise levels for "qualifying arts and entertainment activities in these areas," to 85 decibels, allowing those levels to midnight and ensuring nearby residents are informed of the law prior to moving in. It's unclear where a so-called "urban noise area" would be in Bethesda. Examples mentioned by the Task Force include Rockville's Town Square and Silver Spring's Veterans Plaza, defined areas around civic structures. The final report will also call for the creation of Urban Park Guidelines to allow for more night time uses of county parks, more taxi service and a rule to allow food trucks to open in designated areas after 10 p.m. Leggett is expected to release the final report early next week. The bullet point-version should be available online this week.