Reporter's Notebook: Durham denies beer and wine privilege licenses never | News

Reporter's Notebook: Durham denies beer and wine privilege licenses never

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How easy is it to get a license to sell beer and wine from the City of Durham? There are multiple ways of getting at the answer, one of which is to examine how many applications for it the city ultimately denied.

We did. Since 2002, the city's department of finance has received 576 applications for the beer and wine privilege license from restaurants, mini-marts and other alcohol outlets. In 10 years, not one of those applications was rejected.

It's one of the more interesting factoids that didn't make it into this week's cover story, which examines the city's role in regulating alcoholic beverage retailers. As pointed out by the article, obtaining the license is one of the last bureaucratic hoops an applicant must jump through before they can legally sell beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages in the city.

According to city code, applicants must first obtain the appropriate permits from the North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission before they can be issued the license. That wrinkle in the process would seem to ensure that they've been vetted before their application comes before the Durham City Council for approval. But it also gives the city, specifically the city council, one last shot at exercising some influence over where alcohol retailers like the mini-marts highlighted in the story are allowed to open, as well as who gets to open them.

Asked last week about the overwhelming rate of approval, and about the seeming concentration of alcohol retail outlets in low-income neighborhoods in East Durham, Mayor Bill Bell said, "What I think you need to look at is whether anyone came to the council to say, 'No, this person should not get a license.'"

It's unclear what, if any, details are provided to members of the council about applicants before the body votes. The Indy could not confirm with city officials whether or not the local government opinion—the application review worked up by the Durham Police Department as part of the state's permitting process—is presented to council members

Once the licenses are issued, state law makes taking them away fairly difficult. According to ABC officials, revoking the privilege license has the effect of invalidating the operator's state ABC permits. In that event, the city council would be compelled to offer the operator an opportunity to appeal the decision at a quasi judicial hearing. And if the reasons for that revocation were related to criminal activity, city officials would need to provide evidence that the criminal activity resulted in convictions, not just arrests and calls for service. What's more, ABC law dictates that in such cases, only convictions from the 12 months prior to the revocation can be used as evidence.

The pitfalls of revoking a privilege license may explain why cities don't often do it. A spokesperson for the city's department of finance confirms that in the last decade, not one beer and wine privilege license has been revoked. Durham isn't alone. Renee Cowick, assistant counsel for the ABC Commission, says that granting bodies are required to inform the commission when and if they revoke a privilege license. "I'm not aware of any municipalities that have," she says. "Not in my nine years here."

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