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Friday, September 23, 2016

Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher: Your voice needed on the 500 foot rule

From the desk of Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher:

Dear Hoboken friends and neighbors – 

Monday night there will be an important debate – and I don’t mean the Presidential one that begins at 9pm!  There will be a public meeting at 7pm at City Hall to discuss and debate whether for the second time since the law was established in 1966, we should repeal what is known as the “500 ft rule”. 

WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT TO EVERYONE IN HOBOKEN? 
If the law is repealed outright, you may find yourself with one, more or many bars, restaurants or liquor stores on your block that were not there previously.  To some this may be welcomed and to others this may not.  IT IS CRITICAL THAT YOU ATTEND AND/OR WATCH THIS MEETING TO LEARN MORE AND VOICE YOUR SUPPORT OR CONCERN.  IT IS CURRENTLY CONTEMPLATED THAT THE CITY COUNCIL WILL VOTE ON REPEALING THIS LAW ON OCTOBER 5TH.  5 VOTES ARE NEEDED TO PASS IT.

WHAT IS THE “500 FOOT RULE”?
The 500 ft rule was put in place 50 years ago in 1966, repealed in 1987 and re-instated in 1991 for the same reasons it was put in place 25 years earlier: due to quality of life (noise and public nuisance) and safety issues that occur within areas with concentration of bars. The rule basically says that no liquor license can move to a location that is within 500 feet of another same kind of liquor license (simply put there are liquor store licenses and restaurant / bar type licenses).  When the rule was put in place, existing locations were grandfathered in.  That is why you see rows of bars and restaurants near the PATH and on lower Washington, 1st and 14th streets.  

IS HOBOKEN THE ONLY CITY IN NEW JERSEY THAT HAS A RULE LIKE THIS?
Approximately 10% of all municipalities in New Jersey have local laws that limit “Alcohol Saturation” to prevent concentration of liquor licenses in small areas.  The ones I have read range from as short as 400ft up to 2500ft.  A few of these include Bloomfield, East Rutherford, Point Pleasant, and Middletown.  Also, NYC city has it as well.  They seem to be more prevalent in places that have compact areas with high density and / or significant tourism and / or areas that have combined residential and commercial use.

WHAT DETERMINES WHERE A LIQUOR LICENSE CAN GO?
Effectively, there are currently two governing rules that determine where a liquor license can go:
-          500 ft. rule – which basically has no exceptions
-          Zoning laws – enforced either by Planning Board or Zoning Board.  If bars and restaurants are not permitted within a zone, or are conditionally permitted, a bar / restaurant owner would have to go before the ZBA or PB for a use variance or approval for a conditional use.  In each case, neighbors within 200 ft would receive notice in advance, agendas are publicized and members of the public can voice their views on the application.
If the 500 ft. rule is repealed outright, then restaurants and bars could consider locations ANYWHERE in Hoboken.  In most cases, zoning board or planning board approval would be required.  However, in the following areas, Bars and Restaurants are permitted uses and require NO APPROVAL TO OPEN: 
-          The Central Business District (Washington south of 4th, east and down to the PATH)
-          The Planned Urban Developments in the I-1(W) zone – Shipyard, Maxwell and Hudson Tea complexes
-          Select redevelopments areas within the western I-1 zones.
That means if you live in or adjacent to any of these areas, you would not get the benefit of receiving notice before a new restaurant or bar opens.  And in these locations, demographics are business friendly, barriers to entry are low, and therefore the risk is higher that we would see an increase in bars and restaurants in these areas.  Here is the link to the current Hoboken zoning map: http://www.hobokennj.org/docs/communitydev/Zoning-Map.pdf

WILL REPEAL OF THE 500 FT RULE RESULT IN A SUDDEN INCREASE IN RESTAURANTS AND BARS?
The short answer is no.  The state of NJ restricts the number of licenses to municipalities based upon population – with 52,000 people we would be allowed ~24 liquor licenses.  Hoboken has approximately 143 current liquor licenses (28 liquor stores, with the remaining consumption ones like restaurants and clubs).  This is because when the law was put into place, they grandfathered in existing licenses.  However, there are a handful of inactive licenses that may become active – so it will feel like there are more restaurants and bars.

WHY IS THIS BEING CONSIDERED?
For a couple of reasons.  One – after speaking with a few license owners, council members felt the current market dynamics in Hoboken make it difficult for restaurants and bars to operate. This specifically relates to those license owners who do not own their actual location and may be suddenly in a situation where their landlord increases their rent dramatically, and they do not have clear alternatives to move their business.  Two – because there is a perception that repealing the 500 ft rule will result in more restaurants moving into the emerging / western/underserved areas of Hoboken (transferring from other locations).   Unfortunately, history suggests that this would not materialize, but rather restaurants and bars, - if given the choice to go anywhere without limitation – would choose a location in one of the vacant stores in the busiest part of lower Washington / Newark / PATH area over a distant area on the west side of Hoboken with no traffic, low population density and that is not zoned for restaurants (thus requiring a trip to the zoning or planning board) over moving to.

WHAT DO I THINK ABOUT THIS?
I am wholly supportive of trying to find ways to facilitate more restaurants in emerging areas of Hoboken, but I believe an all-out repeal of a 50 year old rule that was put in place not once, but twice, due to the community risks relating to concentrations of liquor licenses in our tiny, densely populated town is not the right path, and actually will have the opposite of the hoped for effect in the emerging areas of Hoboken as restaurants and bars will have unfettered access to the busiest business friendly locations in Hoboken.  I think a better path is a combination of a more robust public process, select zoning changes and AMENDING the 500 ft rule (vs. appealing outright) to potentially create areas with special needs. 

I also believe that EVERY stakeholder in Hoboken should have the opportunity to voice their opinion and that any decision should reflect this input and from others including Hoboken Police Department, Hoboken ABC, License Owners and Zoning and Planning officials. The public meeting set up for this Monday is a start, but is hardly sufficient to reach all stakeholders.  I do not think blindly repealing the rule without giving full consideration to all stakeholders is appropriate, or responsible for our community.

This just feels rushed to me. Currently, the final reading for the ordinance is contemplated for the next council meeting on October 5th.  If the ordinance is voted upon that night and receives 5 votes, it will pass as is.  And I don't know why it needs to be. It is far too important to EVERY member of our community to get this right.  

YOUR MISSION SHOULD YOU CHOOSE TO ACCEPT.
Share your views.  Attend or watch live Monday night.  

And then email all of the city council members and Mayor Zimmer with your views – whether supportive of concerned.  There are no bad questions and no wrong answers.

Don’t let this get passed without expressing your views.  More voices are better.

Tiffanie Fisher
Hoboken 2nd Ward City Councilwoman


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