TAMPA — By the time the John Rolfe tobacco lounge opened downtown on Nov. 1, the owners had spent thousands of dollars and nearly six months getting city permission to sell beer and wine.
“We put the documents into the city in August,” said Michelle Canete, spokeswoman for the business. “We’ve been going back and forth every couple weeks ever since.”
The owners’ experience isn’t unusual in Tampa, which has one of Florida’s most complicated systems for letting bars, restaurants and other businesses sell alcohol.
Since the late 1990s, most business owners have had to get permission from the city council to serve alcohol. Through the city’s zoning powers, council members have written business hours and other conditions into those permits, making the restrictions permanent features of the property.
The city council took that approach to get a grip on bars and other businesses that had been flouting the city’s rules regarding alcohol, said former council member Scott Paine, now a professor at the University of Tampa.
“We wanted to do something with the bad actors,” Paine said.
Fifteen years later, the current city council is still trying to get a handle on misbehaving bar owners. And they’re doing it as the number of companies holding liquor licenses has exploded.
Tampa has more than 660 bars, restaurants, nightclubs and similar businesses licensed to sell alcohol, according to the state Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco.
So far this year, the state has issued 84 liquor licenses, according to state records. A decade ago, the state issued 14 liquor licenses in the city.
As the number of bars, restaurants and nightclubs has grown, so have complaints and conflicts. In neighborhoods like Hyde Park, residents come out in force with every new request for an alcohol permit, fearing more trouble with noise, crime and parking.
Council members say the system set up 15 years ago to control troublemakers is making it hard to rein in those same troublemakers today.
Because the state issues liquor licenses, city officials have to ask the state to suspend someone’s liquor license as punishment for bad behavior. But the list of infractions that can cost a bar or nightclub its liquor license is short.
The list, for example, doesn’t include shootings, fights or the sale of alcohol or tobacco to minors -- some of the activities that have frustrated council members lately.
The city’s own system for granting alcohol-sale permits further complicated matters.
When operating hours or other conditions are attached to property, restricting them puts the city at risk of being sued for infringing on property rights protected by the U.S. Constitution.
“It’s akin to a taking,” said Councilman Harry Cohen. “It’s a very high threshold to take a property right away from a citizen.”
Changing those property rights requires another public hearing, which can take a long time and cost everyone lots of money. As a result, the city has a tough time challenging businesses caught violating their permit conditions.
A proposal now making its way to city council tries to correct the problem.
Councilwoman Yvonne Yolie Capin wants to end alcohol sales citywide at midnight and let businesses buy a permit letting them go as late at 3 a.m. -- the closing time spelled out by city code. Permits would have to be renewed each year.
Capin sees the permit as a way to offer both a carrot and a stick to those businesses holding alcohol permits: businesses with zoning-based restrictions could surrender them in exchange for the later hours, but if they violate the rules, they could lose that after-hours period.
Attorney and club owner Robert Solomon isn’t so sure Capin’s proposal will work. The idea could cause a whole new set of problems, he said.
“If you take away my right to be open from midnight to 3 a.m., I’m bankrupt,” Solomon said.
While Capin sees that threat as an incentive to get late-night businesses to behave, Solomon sees it as potentially arbitrary decision-making and abuse.
“The city need to address a lot of issues rather than come up with something that could be challenged by an attorney,” he said.
Instead, he’d like to see the city council limit drink specials and require late-night bars to check identification with scanners to weed out fake IDs and under-age drinkers. Neither step would affect a business’ zoning, avoiding the threat of a taking.
Capin’s late-night proposal comes with a hitch, however: the new rule would apply only to businesses permitted before the change in the late 1990s and to those that open after it takes effect.
Businesses with their hours spelled out in their zoning would be immune to the new rules.
How many businesses would be affected?
Nobody knows. The city doesn’t keep track of the number of alcohol permits it has issued.
About 20 cities in Florida, most of them in South Florida, already offer late-night permits. St. Petersburg also began offering them last year.
Capin’s proposal is due back to the city council on Dec. 5 for a first reading. It’s not clear when it might be finalized and what the proposal could look like in the end.
“There’s a lot of different things we need to work out,” Cohen said.