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September 21, 2014

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Planning Commission decisions leave liquor retailer question unresolved: How much is too much?

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Leila Navidi

People gather outside of the Griffin in the Fremont East District on Friday, July 5, 2013.

When Martin Dupalo drives through his neighborhood near Charleston and Nellis boulevards, he takes mental notes of damage to light poles, mailboxes and block walls, scars left by drunken drivers. Often, Dupalo will return later with a camera to document the scenes.

He and other residents have awakened recently to find cars parked on the street sideswiped overnight. Two weeks ago, a three-car accident at 3 a.m. spilled onto the lawn of a church in the area.

Dupalo, a resident of the east Las Vegas area for 33 years, lives near a busy commercial district that, by his count, has more than 80 alcohol retailing businesses — including restaurants, convenience stores, bars and liquor stores — within a 1.5-mile radius.

He’s convinced there’s too many, pointing to the damage done by drunken drivers and increased vagrancy as evidence.

“That threshold means that our neighborhood is a meeting point for people who want to purchase alcohol because we have 80-some-odd places within a mile, essentially,” Dupalo said. “The city of Las Vegas has to realize that’s not healthy and there is a disparate impact on our neighborhood because of that.”

So when Dupalo’s neighborhood Wal-Mart recently applied to the city for a permit allowing it to begin offering hard liquor alongside the beer, wine, groceries and other merchandise it already sells, Dupalo gathered his evidence and prepared for a battle he’d already fought once.

In 2008, the city council unanimously denied a similar request by Wal-Mart after Dupalo and several other residents presented challenges. Then-Councilman Gary Reese, who represented Ward 3, credited the dozens of pages of research and photos gathered by Dupalo as illustrative evidence there was a problem.

“We always have to look at the integrity of a neighborhood. I can see tonight that this has been questioned; that bothers me,” Reese said at the time. “I really feel like that at this time we do have an oversaturation of alcohol in this location. There’s no question about it.”

Almost five years later, Wal-Mart reapplied for the liquor permit, but this time, Dupalo stood alone in resistance. Of the 1,258 residents and businesses notified by the city about the proposed change, only Dupalo responded in opposition.

The Planning Commission earlier this month granted the permit, a routine occurrence, in a 6-0 vote. It will not be taken up by the City Council.

Earlier in that same Planning Commission meeting, commissioners spent more than an hour hearing testimony and debating on a trio of proposed package liquor licenses for stores under the canopy at the Fremont Street Experience.

Concerns about the easy availability of alcohol and the potential for underage drinking or violence have become a hot topic downtown in recent months, and a large contingent of downtown stakeholders — including casino representatives, business representatives and law enforcement members — voiced opposition to adding more liquor stores to the area.

Dupalo saw downtown’s issues paralleling those of his own neighborhood, and he was initially hopeful when he heard many of the same points raised that he intended to make in his fight against Wal-Mart.

Planning commissioners took the concerns from the downtown representatives seriously, and their deliberations exposed the difficult proposition of defining a threshold for liquor stores in an area. Countless academic studies have shown a link between increasing number of liquor outlets and a rise in associated crime in the surrounding area, but defining how many is too many has remained tricky.

When it came time for a vote, commissioners split 3-3 on the downtown permits, resulting in a de facto denial.

Dupalo then watched shortly after as Wal-Mart’s application was approved, with little discussion among planning commissioners about the issues of oversaturation he’d raised.

“It’s not a Wal-Mart thing necessarily. Had it been somebody else with a different name there that wanted to do the same thing, I would have opposed it, as well,” he said. “I can’t oppose everybody all the time. I’m not a multinational corporation. I’m not a high-priced law firm. I don’t have the resources. I’m hoping that my elected officials will protect my neighborhood. Apparently they won’t.”

Gus Flangas, the Planning Commission chairman, voted to approve the liquor applications on Fremont Street and for Wal-Mart. He said he didn’t think businesses should be held accountable for the behavior of other nearby businesses.

“Bottom line, it’s an enforcement issue,” Flangas said of the concerns on Fremont Street.

Richard Boynar, one of three planning commissioners to oppose the liquor licenses on Fremont Street but not at Wal-Mart, said he saw the two situations as entirely different.

Each case must be weighed on its unique set of circumstances, he said. Although a high concentration of alcohol retailers can be a concern, Boynar said he didn’t think allowing Wal-Mart to sell liquor would worsen the situation in the east Las Vegas neighborhood.

“I don’t think the two situations are comparable. I think one is going to be a 'buy it and take it home' while the other is, 'Let’s see what we can get away with down in this Fremont area,'” Boynar said. “There’s a lot of arguments on both sides. Presentations are made, we weigh those things. … Health and safety rule the day as far as I’m concerned.”

Whether the new liquor stores will be allowed on Fremont Street ultimately will be decided next month by the Las Vegas City Council.

Under the city’s planning rules, the Wal-Mart decision will remain final. No review was requested by the council, and Dupalo declined to file an appeal, which would have cost him $750 to re-notice the hearing.

Agreeing with many of the planning commissioners, Councilman Bob Coffin, who represents Ward 3, said he saw the Fremont Street applications and Wal-Mart’s request as separate issues.

“At Las Vegas Boulevard and Charleston, or Las Vegas Boulevard and Oakey, there’s more vagrancy, so we do limit certain aspects of alcohol sales,” including preventing the sale of single-serving alcohol containers, Coffin said. “There is not that same problem at Nellis and Charleston.”

The high number of alcohol retailers in the area can be attributed to the proximity of two major thoroughfares, he said, adding that competition among stores eventually allows the market to balance out.

“There’s four corners zoned for liquor. If I shut down competition, it would be a subjective call not based upon fact,” he said. “Wal-Mart’s a market selling food and general retail. It’s zoned for liquor. Why would you turn them down?”

Coffin said he’s still undecided about whether he’ll vote to allow three new liquor stores on Fremont Street. He said the item was called up for council review because “we knew it might be controversial and have substantial objection.”

With less than a month remaining before the Aug. 21 decision, Coffin planned to visit the Fremont Street Experience over the weekend to see if the availability of alcohol was a pervasive problem or one that popped up mostly during major events such as First Friday.

“With First Friday, we’re amping up some security, but that’s an ephemeral thing you gear up for once a month,” he said. “We want to make sure every day is safe, so I’m going to check it out when it’s not an event weekend.”

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