Written by Phil Cerroni
By Alice Canham and Jess Paniszczyn
The intellectual arguments, statements of personal preference, political posturing, hype, name calling, squabbles, fights, even the voting has gone on for years. It has become a uniquely Irving tradition that has been a part of Irving longer than most of her residents. The great debate over alcohol: should it be sold within city limits, if so, where, what type, how much, in which establishments, under what circumstances?
The City Council is holding a special session on Jan. 24 to perhaps determine the fate of the City’s 60/40 ratio. Simply put a restaurant in the city of Irving is required to serve no less than 60 percent food and no more than 40 percent alcohol. The state standard for restaurants is 50/50. The Council is considering allowing a 30/70 ratio.
Additionally, the Council is considering overlay districts, a series of boundaries which treat businesses within different boundaries or districts differently.
This article is being written prior to the City Council’s special session. In order to provide some background on what is happening on the alcohol issue now and why, we have interviewed two titians of Irving politics who have not always seen eye to eye Councilman Joe Putnam and Herb Gears. Both gentlemen have served as Irving Councilmen and as Mayors in the past.
“Our community has evolved from a basic understanding that there is no redeeming value in alcohol,” Gears said. “You can see it in the way, over the years, we have accommodated regulating alcohol, and balancing that with the type of development we wanted for our community.
“Is it time for an adjustment? Maybe it is. When you make the argument that food prices are stable, but alcohol prices are soaring… you can’t have two glasses of wine with dinner without violating the 60/40 ordinance. From a logical, business perspective, we’re being asked to attend to the needs of today’s industry, and I think we should do that.
“On the other hand, the flaw in the argument is that you have to do this to get new development. Well, we’re looking for that in the Urban District. The people that live there and work there are looking for an urban-style environment… and that includes bars. So you have to take this question on more than one front.
“(Changing this for the Las Colinas area) does not solve the problem for every other restaurant in Irving.
“It’s a real problem – one you can solve without creating bars.
“They need to go ahead and change the ordinance to 50/50 in the remainder of the city; that would solve every restaurant in town’s problem.”
If the 50/50 benefits restaurants, then who benefits from a 30/70 ratio?
“There are people who want bars in Irving, so the 30/70 is a benefit to the people who want bars,” Putnam said. “The 30/70 offers no benefit to the citizens of Irving, Irving neighborhoods, Irving homeowners or anyone else, other than people who want to operate bars. That is what this fight is all about.
In 1981 when the local option election was approved, the promise was made to Irving voters that the sale of alcohol for on premises consumption would be limited to restaurants. The 60/40 formula was adopted to ensure that only restaurants would sell alcohol.
“We were sued over this formula by West End Pink, Ltd. in 97 or 98, and that is when our ordinance was validated. Because of a unique character of our ordinance, unlike every other city in the state of Texas, we had the authority to regulate the ratio of alcohol to food. Under state law, cities have no ability to regulate the sale of alcohol. So we have a very narrow, protective exception to state law, which we have maintained for 30 years.
“The way this whole mess got started was my big fight with the entertainment center and Billy Bob was over the alcohol issue. About a year ago, Billy Bob and I started talking about how to resolve my issue. We came up with a solution that is sensible for everyone: reduce the 60/40 to 50/50, which is what the state standard is. Any legitimate restaurant in the world can operate with a 50/50 ratio of food to alcohol.
“One of the issues is whether the City Council ought to break the promise to the promise that was made in 1981 without having citizens vote on it. I think citizens should vote on it. There is a provision in the proposed charter election that would allow a citizen vote.”
“In Texas, a facility that sells more than 50 percent alcohol is not classified as a restaurant,” Gears said. “That has to do with their licensing, and how much bonding they require; it’s much more expensive to be a bar and get a bar license than it is for a restaurant license.
“What’s always been sensitive – because these ordinances are protected, you have to be careful when you begin to alter them. If you alter them substantially, for example, you create a situation where a challenge could, in fact, invalidate your grand-fathering.
“To what degree could you amend the 60/40 ordinance, and not place your city in jeopardy of losing a challenge? You have to think about limiting your alterations.”
How would a 30/70 affect existing restaurants?
“The 30/70 will jeopardize every legitimate restaurant in Irving today,” Putnam said. “Champps, The Ranch and similar restaurants will have to compete with someone just down the street operating as a bar who doesn’t have to spend money on a kitchen and can sell unlimited amounts of alcohol. All the patrons in those legitimate restaurants who are there because they want something to drink, will migrate down to the real bar. It will create a significant financial disadvantage to those restaurants.”
“The restaurant owner doesn’t want me opening up next to him and not having to invest in my kitchen the way he did,” Gears said. “A bar has a much more competitive advantage.
“And the 30/70 only applies to whatever might be newly-built. You’re not going to see an existing restaurant go to 30/70; it wouldn’t make sense. Anything that’s currently in business was built with a profit model that meets the 60/40. So you have to separate the two issues.
“The restaurants originally asked for the 50/50. They say it will work for them.
“The Council is confusing the two issues and looking for a solution that doesn’t even speak to one of the issues. They think the answer is to go to 30/70, and then somehow limit it in some way, so they’ve morphed into these variations to justify it politically.
“For restaurants that are not in the Urban Center, even if they are in the Las Colinas Association [like iFratelli’s], solve their problem by changing it to 50/50 for them.
“The backdrop is, you want to be able to protect your abilities to regulate alcohol. If you’ve solved the problem for every restaurant in Irving by going to 50/50, which I believe you have, then you don’t confront that.
“And you’re treating people fairly.”
Would creating various districts in different areas of the city solve some of the problems, because people do not want ‘bars’ in or around their neighborhoods, but the Urban Center does not have the same types of concerns?
“Overlay districts are totally illegal. It is idiotic,” Putnam said. “You cannot have different standards for alcohol consumption without violating not only the 14th Amendment, but the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code plainly says that all holders of mixed beverage permits must be treated alike. You cannot have one standard in south Irving and another standard in north Irving. Everyone is entitled to the same rules. So if overlay districts are put in place, anyone who is discriminated against will sue the City and win. So if there are bars in north Irving or Las Colinas, you will have bars in south Irving and anywhere else in the city.”
“If you’re talking about politics, then you’ll see what you’ve seen so far from this Council,” Gears said. “But it’s not about politics. It’s not about Las Colinas wanting it and South Irving not wanting it. The decision should be made by considering what the problem is, and (asking if you are) providing the solution that solves the problem.
“You’re not making a change because you want your local businesses to be able to sell more alcohol… We’re talking about removing an obstacle to new development in the Urban Center. They’re saying 60/40 is an obstacle. Fine, we’ll remove that obstacle in the Urban Center. That’s why we call it “urban”; that’s what we need there. That makes sense in the Urban Center Overlay.”
“This is a very complicated, delicate, difficult issue that needs to be dealt with by the City Council in a very thoughtful way, instead of through this rush of judgment that we see at City Hall,” Putnam said. “People are stampeding into a decision without really understanding what they are doing. The risk to the city is extreme, the consequences are significant, and Council members need to be thoughtful about it.”