Liquor License Protest Process in DC

In Hospitality by Richard Bianco

If you are applying for, renewing, or changing a liquor license, the public gets a say. Even if you have never been through the liquor license protest process before, you have no doubt noticed those obtrusive red or green placards hung in the window, announcing the application.

In addition to the posted public announcement, the Board directly informs the local ANC inviting them to weigh-in. However, the ANC’s are not the only ones who can challenge an applicant’s license. Any group of five (5) or more citizens sharing a common issue or any ‘abutting’ property owner may file a protest.

There are a number of grounds that an ANC, “gang of 5,” or abutting owner can rely on to challenge a license. Specifically, any Protestant can submit that the new, modified or renewed license is inappropriate because it is inappropriate for the section of the city that it is in because it will adversely impact:

1. Peace, order, and quiet;
2. Vehicular or pedestrian traffic; or
3. Real estate values.

The ANC and abutting owners have special rights in a liquor license protest

By law, both the ANC and an Abutting Property Owner may lodge a protest based on any, or all of the three (3) factors cited above.

In cases where the ANC files a protest, their opinion has “great weight.” That means if the parties do not settle, it becomes more difficult for the establishment to prevail.

Unlike the ANC an Abutting Owner does not get any additional consideration. However, they have superior rights to an ordinary “gang of five” or more Protestants. Specifically, where the ANC and the establishment enter into a Settlement Agreement, any “Gang of Five,” is automatically dismissed. However, the Abutting Owner’s Protest continues.

This is often problematic for an establishment. Frequently, dealing with an ANC is arms-length and business-like. The ANC is a governmental subdivision of elected officials. In many cases, they have standard form Settlement Agreements that they ask all establishments under their jurisdiction to sign.

The same is not often true of an Abutting Owner. That person is faced with a new, or expanded bar which could be disruptive. Whether it is a case of NIMBY, or animus has built up over time, an Abutting Owner’s protest is often more personal. That makes it more and difficult to resolve.

Who qualifies as an ‘Abutting Owner’ in a liquor license protest?

Not all next door neighbors are “Abutting Owners” who can file a liquor license protest. In interpreting the statute the ABC Board has drawn some interesting lines, so to speak.

When two lots have property lines that touch, those lots are “abutting.” See DC Code §25-601(1). In accordance with that definition, the Board has determined that a property which is separated by an alley from the licensed establishment, does not meet the definition of abutting. see In re States & Letters Restaurant, LLC t/a the Dabney, Case (D.C.A.B.C.B. Jun 3, 2015). That makes perfect sense, the neighbor shares a lot line in common with a public alley, not the establishment. The Board applied the plain language of the statute, as they should have and reached the correct result.

In January 2018, the Board decided a much more difficult case. In re Spero, LLC t/a Reverie (D.C.A.B.C.B. Jan. 30, 2018) the Board found that a condominium unit located in the same building as the licensed establishment does not qualify as an abutting property owner unless the unit in question shares a wall or ceiling with the licensed establishment. Again, the Board interpreted the statute literally, as is their mandate.

As an aside, there is a hyper-technical argument that a condominium association might make. Namely, that the definition of a “Condominium Unit” in nearly all cases, ends at the floorcoverings and drywall. The subfloor, joists and structural walls that truly abutt the neighboring lots are common elements which the Association controls. However, the Board did not consider, (or flatly rejected) such an argument.

Presently, the law is that a property owner sharing a lot line in common with the establishment is abutting. This is the case even if the structure is set back from the line by 10, 50, or 100 feet. However, a condominium unit owner living in the same building as a licensed establishment is not. Unless the unit shares a common wall, floor or ceiling with the establishment.

Get professional advice on how to handle a protest

Owners are experts in running their bar business, but not in the minutia of legal standing. The complexity of this issue underscores the need for professional representation. Instead of trying to save money by muddling through it yourself, if you are engaged in a liquor license protest and want to know more about your rights call now or make an appointment for a free case evaluation.