TAMPA — Who signed off on an alcohol permit for a Walmart planned in Seminole Heights has reopened debate on the process for issuing them.
It has been three years since the Tampa City Council changed its permitting process for hotels, restaurants and package stores in the name of making life simpler for business owners and for themselves.
The change shifted the task of green-lighting those permits from the council to the zoning administrator. Unless a business needed an exemption from the council, its alcohol permit could move through the city without triggering a public hearing.
Since then, the city has approved beer-and-wine permits for 99 businesses, a list that includes Taco Bus downtown, Carne Chop House in Ybor City and Beef O’Brady’s locations.
Hard-liquor permits still need council approval.
The staff-approved permits are about meeting the specifics, such as distance from other uses, spelled out in the city code. Business that check all the boxes get the permits.
The trouble, City Councilman Harry Cohen said Thursday, is that the permits can rile neighborhoods whose residents then demand to know why the city allowed alcohol sales without alerting them.
The Walmart permit might prompt council members to undo the process adopted by their predecessors in 2011.
The change was approved four days before the current council took its seats. The vote was 4-3. The four council members who approved the change are all gone.
The council members who opposed it — Mary Mulhern, Yvonne Yolie Capin and Charlie Miranda — still serve. They need one more vote to overturn the change. Councilman Frank Reddick, who asked to re-examine the policy change last month, could be that vote.
“We should be the ones making these decisions,” Reddick said Thursday. “The public has a right to come here.”
City council members have no control over whether a business can serve alcohol. That’s a state decision. The city can control where alcohol is sold.
In recent years, shootings at night clubs in Ybor City and West Tampa spurred council members to look for ways to rein in bars whose owners tolerate criminal behavior or bars that have become a nuisance to their neighbors.
Thursday’s three-hour workshop took council members through another round of debate on an issue they’ve spent years discussing with little to show for it.
Their effort last week to develop rules for night clubs ran aground again after Ybor City business owners objected. The same thing happened last December when council members abandoned a proposal to create a revocable late-night permit for businesses to serve alcohol from midnight to 3 a.m.
By trying to tighten its grip on alcohol permits, the city council is going in the opposite direction of the Hillsborough County Commission, which has put those permits entirely in the hands of its staff.
Councilwoman Lisa Montelione warned her colleagues against going too far when it comes to unwinding the previous council’s work. In many of the 99 cases, it’s unlikely the council would have made a different decision from the one zoning officials made, she said.
“What we’re saying is we have no trust in our zoning administrator to follow the rules we set out in ordinances,” she said.
Making every alcohol permit subject to the city council’s approval will hamstring the city’s efforts to create new business, Montelione said. It also will make Tampa look antiquated just when it’s trying to attract young forward-looking entrepreneurs, she said.
“We certainly could make a few minor changes to the current code that could make what was passed in 2011 better,” she said. “We have to emerge from the past and move on to the future.”
Development consultant Steven Michelini warned council members that their indecision on alcohol permits is costing prospective businesses time and money.
“When you affect the zoning, those tremors spread throughout the community,” Michelini said. “I have businesses that can no longer get loans because of this process.”
Councilman Mike Suarez reminded his fellow council members, as they struggle to find a solution to their alcohol-permit conundrum, they’re caught up in a web of well-meaning rules created by other councils.
“We have layered things on top of things on top of things and made things more complicated than they need to be,” Suarez said.
Council members to put off until June 19 the rest of their discussion on alcohol permitting when three members did not return after lunch. Of those who did return, some had commitments outside Old City Hall Thursday afternoon.