Competing issues tangle Utah’s liquor permit bottleneck
Alcohol • Lawmakers conflicted over easing restrictions that may be keeping restaurant chains away.
Published: May 18, 2012 02:39PM
Updated: May 22, 2012 05:59PM

Lawmakers are wrangling with an acute shortage of liquor licenses amid their fears that more restaurants and bars could increase drunk driving and underage drinking.

Last week, a legislative interim committee looked at data from surrounding states, which seemed to indicate Utah has much stricter quotas to determine the number of available licenses. And information from a national alcoholic-control association backs up that contention.

Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, said next month he’ll propose changes to the population-based quota system that sets limits on the number of permits. Commercial developers testified during the legislative hearing last week that the shortage is causing some restaurant chains to cross Utah off their lists.

California, for instance, allows one bar or restaurant license per 2,000 population. Idaho’s quota is one license per 1,500 and Washington has one permit per 1,200, according to the Utah Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel.

In Utah it’s one per 4,925 for a full-service restaurant license that allows all types of alcohol for patrons ordering food.

The Utah quota for a bar license is one per 7,850 population, while a limited restaurant license is one per 8,373 people.

That means Utah has fewer restaurant and bar permits, with 0.87 outlets per 1,000 adults over age 21, the legal age to imbibe.

By contrast, Montana has 3.4 outlets per 1,000 adults, Wyoming 3.13 outlets, Oregon, 2.37, Washington 1.67, California 1.65 and Idaho 1.11, according to the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association.

Steven Bogden, managing director of Coldwell Banker Commercial, said last week that the license shortage is preventing the Darden Restaurant Group from opening 12 eateries in Utah, which would generate $40 million in sales and $2.7 million in taxes.

“The economy runs on a delicate nature of supply and demand,” he said. “Utah has a great demand but we also have a limited supply of licenses.”

Utah lawmakers have repeatedly said that demand must be balanced against what they see as the potential of additional licenses leading to more underage drinking and drunk driving.

“The bottom line is a wetter environment would yield a higher DUI rate,” said Valentine, citing studies that he believes show negative impacts associated with easier access to alcohol.

But Salt Lake City physician Thomas Barman challenged the assumption that the state should continue its tight quotas on restaurants, where patrons must order food with drinks, as a way to combat overconsumption.

“Alcohol consumption has meritorious benefits to society when used in moderation, and this I dare say is irrefutable,” he said in an interview. Severely limiting access to alcohol is “just as silly” as the logic that the state insists all Utahns drink in moderation “to achieve the clear health benefits.”

Rather solely limiting licenses, the key to reducing violence and other impacts from overconsumption is to regulate the number of all outlets selling alcohol, according to the California-based public health group, Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation.

A number of studies show that violence increases in neighborhoods with a high density of bars, restaurants, liquor stores and other business that sell alcohol, such as convenience outlets, according to its report, “How Alcohol Affects Neighborhood Violence.”

The institute recommends spacing all alcohol outlets at reasonable distances, withholding new licenses in saturated neighborhoods and shutting down establishments that repeatedly violate alcohol laws, such as selling to inebriated adults and minors.

Regulating alcohol

Governments can help fight crime and blight by controlling how licenses are allocated, according to the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation think tank. Among its recommendations:

Make rules • that set minimum distances between all alcohol outlets

Restrict licenses • in areas that have outlets too close together

Close outlets • that repeatedly violate liquor laws, such as selling to minors