Liquor reviews under scrutiny
A state Senate plan tightens rules under which businesses can obtain licenses
A group of Waikiki condominium residents who have been fighting the establishment of a 5,000-square-foot bar in their lobby for more than a year says liquor license laws favor applicants, and are pushing for a state bill that would make the process tougher for businesses.
Senate Bill 2551 will go before the Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee tomorrow at 9 a.m. in conference room 229 at the state Capitol. The bill proposes several changes to liquor license application process.
The measure, which is scheduled for a hearing tomorrow, would automatically deny an application if the city Liquor Commission cannot come to a decision, and modify the process in which residents are alerted to the applicant's intentions to ensure that those who have moved or died are not polled. Applications are now approved by default if the commission fails to come to a vote.
"We went firsthand through this whole experience of what you have to do if you don't want a liquor establishment where it's proposing to go," said Randi Thomas, a resident at the Island Colony on Seaside Avenue. "I happened to stumble on this and the other thing as the process was unfolding."
Senate Bill 2551 would not affect the condominium's ongoing dispute with E & J Lounge Operating Co. Inc., which filed a liquor license to open its Irish Rose Saloon at the Island Colony in January 2005.
But Thomas, who drafted the bill, said she wants to see the changes go through so that other residents who oppose a license have an easier time with the process.
William Comerford, one of the partners of E & J Lounge, agreed that there are "problems with the process," but he also said that a denial by default would allow the commission to skirt controversial decisions.
"That's nonsense," he said. "That means the Liquor Commission can sit on their hands any time, and it doesn't have to make a decision."
At a recent Honolulu Liquor Commission meeting, Chairman Dennis Enomoto said the commission would not take a position on the bill until it makes the legislative crossover. He also expressed support for some of the bill's provisions.
Thomas already has support from many of her neighbors along with the Waikiki Neighborhood Board, which is set to testify tomorrow.
"There are some problems that need to be fixed," said Waikiki Neighborhood Board member Walt Flood. "This is probably the first time in 20 years I've seen residents taking on the Liquor Commission."
The Irish Rose operated on Lewers Street until early 2005, when the bar was booted out to make way for Outrigger Hotels and Resorts' $800 million Waikiki Beachwalk project. After twice postponing a vote on the bar's license, the Liquor Commission denied the Irish Rose application in May.
Comerford appealed the decision to the state Circuit Court. On Feb. 1, Circuit Judge Elizabeth Hifo said commissioners failed to follow protocol in their vote on the license and so must rehear the case.
Hifo's ruling hinges on the premise that liquor license application hearings are contested cases, but Thomas says that is flawed thinking.
Her bill would define the hearings as public hearings, which means applicants could only appeal decisions back to the commission if a significant difference in facts was found. An applicant could also refile for a license in a year's time.
The measure, which is set to be heard tomorrow before the Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee, also sets up a new process for surveying residents on liquor licenses. For example, it would allow the city Liquor Commission to revise registered voter lists to take off the names of those who have moved or died.
Under the law, a license is denied if 51 percent of registered voters or owners and lessees within 500 feet of an establishment are against it being issued. Often, Enomoto acknowledged in the recent meeting, the lists used are outdated.