Eastside residents, police push for local control of liquor licenses
Residents and business owners on the Santa Barbara’s Eastside, along with the police department, are continuing to try to address public drunkenness, public urination and nuisance behaviors on Milpas Street.
On Tuesday, an Eastside resident will testify at an Alcoholic Beverage Control meeting against the CVS at 336 Milpas St. receiving its liquor license. (The virtual meeting will be held 9:30 to 11 a.m. on Zoom.)
Concerned residents say CVS marks the 34th establishment on Milpas Street where someone can purchase alcohol.
Natasha Todorovic lives in close proximity to the CVS, and she has been part of multiple associations and committees reaching out to the city council, police department, neighboring business owners and eventually the ABC to cut down on the problem.
“I am perpetually dealing with the drunks coming from Milpas Liquor and CVS and 7-Eleven and Pat’s Liquor and wherever else,” Ms. Todorovic told the News-Press. “They stick their beer cans in my hedge, they throw their bottles over my fence, they sit on my front steps getting drunk.
“We deserve better. Since when do you live five blocks from the beach and you’ve got to walk over bodies of people that have passed out because they’ve had way too much to drink? It’s just awful.”
Ms. Todorovic protested CVS receiving a license at all, but she said the Santa Barbara Police Department, CVS and the ABC lawyer agreed to conditions such as no sale of airplane liquor bottles, security caps required on liquor bottles, no sale of individual containers of beer and restrictions on hours of sales.
She referred to these as “small victories.”
“It’s not like there’s a good solution to this,” she said. “The massive problem is we have no city control. Honestly, right now for the Milpas area, it’s like closing the barn door after the horses are gone.”
However, Ms. Todorovic said she does think these conditions give the police department the ability to spot the bad actors who are, in this case, business owners who sell alcohol to drunken individuals.
“We’ve tried to work with some of the different business owners, and that varies in effectiveness. Some are very helpful, some are less helpful,” she said. “They’re not supposed to be selling to drunken patrons, but they do.”
Ms. Todorovic said community members have cautioned business owners not to sell to some of the repeat offenders.
She concluded that because she has her own business and works remotely, the issue has inhibited her productivity at home, due to everything from intoxicated individuals shouting outside her home to feeling uncomfortable to walk anywhere alone.
Matthew Blanchette is the manager of retail communications for CVS Pharmacy. He told the News-Press, “We are committed to being a responsible retailer regarding the sale of alcoholic beverages, and we have a long history of demonstrating that responsibility. We have firm policies and procedures in place to prevent the sale of alcohol to minors and to customers who appear to be under the influence of alcohol.”
Natalia Govoni runs a boutique in the 400 block of Milpas Street right next to Pat’s Liquors. She’s also been part of the push to cut down on liquor issues on the Eastside.
“It’s a grave concern to all of us who live and work in that district,” she told the News-Press. “Naturally, when you see feces on the sidewalk or on a driveway or vomit, it’s uninviting. You’re not going to patronize a business when you see that.”
Ms. Govoni said that she doesn’t see problems like this in Montecito or San Roque or the Upper East areas of Santa Barbara. She added that she’s had drunken vagrants come inside her store around five different times, and “it’s scary.”
“I don’t want to crush any business, but I think there are just too many alcohol outlets, and when is enough enough?” she said. “To me, the Eastside district can and should look better than it does. There’s no excuse for it looking the way it does, and if somebody wants to open up a business selling alcohol — OK, fine. But do it somewhere else.”
Anthony Wagner, the public information officer for the police department, told the News-Press that it’s safe to say Milpas Street is one of the most active corridors for this type of behavior. But he noted corridors such as State and Chapala streets are also active because that happens to be where the most businesses are that attract those types of customers.
“The problem is not the number of alcohol licenses — the problem is the lack of regulation and the lack of following the existing rules so that they don’t disproportionately contribute to nuisance-related activity,” he said. “We have a challenge in adequately governing them. In order to best tackle it, we need to better govern those alcohol outlets with a greater consistency than we’re able to now.”
He said the problem is that alcohol licenses in the state are first and solely governed by the state, not the city.
“There’s approximately 7,200 to 7,400 licenses in the tri-counties, and there’s probably only two or three alcohol license agents for the ABC,” Mr. Wagner said. “Ultimately, they’re overworked. They’re overworked, they’re understaffed, and there are a whole lot of licenses for them to govern and they’re not able to do that with frequency.”
For this reason, he said, an alcohol ordinance will be going to Santa Barbara’s Planning Commission in March, to hopefully gain that local control and be able to regulate through land use, addressing things such as serial inebriacy, underage drinking, loitering and other criminal activity.
Regarding Milpas Street’s oversaturation, Mr. Wagner said that state code says that as long as the area is not oversaturated with alcohol licenses or has a crime rate that exceeds 120% of the average of the city, a license can be granted.
“There are no areas in the city of Santa Barbara that have a high crime rate,” he said. “But a vast majority of the census tracts are considered oversaturated.”
That being said, the ABC sets the standard of what’s considered “oversaturation,” yet, the ABC is directly linked to how many alcohol licenses are given out.
He added that CVS is not his or the department’s problem right now, due to the increased price points of the alcohol there. The problem, he said, is the liquor stores that sell the mini liquor bottles and the 200 to 300 milliliter liquor bottles for cheap, which makes them more attractive to people who have a chemical dependency on alcohol.
“We want to create a level playing field to where everyone knows exactly where the rules are and get them back into conformity, because right now, everybody’s playing fast and loose,” Mr. Wagner said, referring to older liquor stores that have expanded their liquor license diagram without telling the ABC. This is able to occur because the ABC doesn’t have the capability to go in yearly and check everyone’s diagrams.
“There have been liquor establishments in the city of Santa Barbara that have expanded beyond what’s under licensed control,” he said.
This process of checking in with these establishments is what he said the department hopes to get the resources to do with the proposed alcohol ordinance. He added that the department will start with education, and resort to fines only if businesses refuse to comply.
“It’s far easier to show somebody what they need to correct than just being a jerk and fining them,” Mr. Wagner said. “We’re finally going to embed something in our municipal code so that they’re violating municipal code instead of using a state code.”