There was quite a bit of buzz over the past week after the Alcoholic Beverage Control board forced Hank’s Oyster Bar to shut down part of its patio, pending a review of the termination of the restaurant’s voluntary agreement with the neighborhood. The termination, which lifted certain expansion restrictions, had already been approved by the ABC Board with the support of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2B, but a handful of neighbors appealed the decision.

The kerfuffle has now escalated to the point where the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington is calling for the D.C. Council to reform the alcohol licensing process. In particular, RAMW wants to change the protest system so that small ad hoc groups of people can’t hold up the licensing process for businesses.

Here’s the full press release:

WASHINGTON, D.C. (June 15, 2012) – The Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) today called on D.C. Council member Jim Graham to include reform of the District’s alcohol licensing approval process for restaurants and bars in legislation he is currently drafting for Council consideration.

RAMW urged D.C. Council action on city regulatory procedures following a lengthy 4-1/2 hour Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board hearing on Wednesday evening to review a licensing protest by only six Dupont Circle area residents involving award-winning neighborhood restaurant Hank’s Oyster Bar that has continued for more than seven years.

The ABC Board is currently reviewing a prior decision to rescind a “Voluntary Agreement” imposed on the restaurant by a small ad hoc group restricting seating capacity and including other operating limits originating at the time of the popular eatery’s opening in 2005. Termination of the agreement by the ABC Board in 2010 had allowed restaurant chef-owner Jamie Leeds to subsequently expand into an adjoining vacant property last year. The group had filed a lawsuit to have the Board’s decision nullified, resulting in a May 17 decision by the D.C. Court of Appeals that the Board erred in not fully considering all legal requirements of a termination decision and remanding the issue to the Board for additional adjudication.

RAMW is urging Graham, who chairs the Council committee with oversight of ABC agency matters, to include modification of the licensing “protest process” in order to eliminate these types of unnecessary delays in city review of business applications as a result of licensing opposition filings by small self-identified groups. Current law allows ad hoc groups of as few as five people to intervene in the city’s liquor licensing application review process.

“Allowing only a handful of residents to protest a liquor license application results in lengthy delays in review by the ABC Board causing great hardship for local businesses. The Hank’s Oyster Bar case has dragged on for more than seven years,” said RAMW President Lynne Breaux. “The appropriate neighborhood forum for licensing review and input is the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) elected by area residents,” Breaux argued, “not these ad hoc local groups.”

Graham recently convened an “ABC Working Group” of both community and business representatives to review regulatory issues and problems in the city’s alcohol licensing process. The group concluded its extensive six-month evaluation on May 3 and Graham conducted a Council committee hearing on May 8 to review the group’s report. The group included a RAMW representative as well as member business operators, along with a wide range of neighborhood and citizen group delegates.

“Although the recommendations of the broad-based group assembled by Council member Graham include several sensible recommendations,” Breaux stated, “the proposals do not go far enough in correcting the ability of small and unrepresentative groups to hold business owners hostage by threat of long and costly delays.”

Doug Rogers, a neighborhood resident who currently serves as President of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA), said in a recent public statement regarding the Hank’s Oyster Bar liquor licensing battle that the ability of a few neighborhood people “to do this should be eliminated from D.C. law, and I urge Mayor Gray and the D.C. Council to reform D.C.’s archaic regulatory laws.”

In calling on Graham to more fully address the city’s alcohol licensing problems, Breaux urged the Council member to “take a long hard look at the inequities in the process and recognize that the appropriate open and accessible forum for citizen input is at the ANC level. Otherwise, business owners will continue to face renegade protests by small groups that are often contrary to the opinion of a majority of local residents.”

Photo by Jessica Sidman