Georgetown’s Liquor License Ban Under Consideration

Georgetown’s decades-long ban on new liquor licenses – long accused by business owners of atrophying the neighborhood’s restaurant industry – faces an uncertain future.

The D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board will issue its decision March 30 on whether to extend, modify or allow the moratorium to expire.

Implemented in 1989 following complaints from Georgetown residents of noise and rowdy behavior from unruly patrons, the moratorium capped the number of establishments that could attain a Class C/R license, which permits the sale of beer, wine or spirits on premises.

Within the past five years, liquor licenses were hoarded by landlords and resold at exorbitant prices, in some cases even fetching $15,000. The resulting license shortage saw prospective restaurant businesses fleeing Georgetown for more restaurant-friendly areas like Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle. In 2009, the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue auctioned off a seized license to Johnny Rockets on M Street for $100,000.

The Advisory Neighborhood Commission, in collaboration with Georgetown’s Business Improvement District, drafted a settlement agreement this past December that outlines how establishments can operate even without the moratorium in place. The ANC, a body composed of District residents, considers government policies that directly affect the neighborhoods it represents.

Student ANC 2E Commissioner Kendyl Clausen (SFS ’16) predicted that the proposed settlement lifting the moratorium would not cause Georgetown’s restaurant scene to revert back into the rowdiness that irked residents in the eighties.

“This covers everything from hours, where noise can be heard from before you get a violation, how many people you can have, whether or not you can have live entertainment there and an entire array of things,” Clausen said. “It addresses all the problems they had during the ’80s and has formal mechanisms that make it more standard of a process.”

Clausen added that the Georgetown neighborhood itself is no longer conducive to a party scene.

“The popular bar, clubbing areas aren’t in Georgetown anymore,” Clausen said. “People don’t come from Northeast to club on M Street, that’s just not a thing that happens. A lot of the fears are no longer there, because the moratorium has so successfully worked that we are actually losing a lot of our hip restaurant life as well, and I don’t think we’re at risk of any craziness happening again.”

Student ANC 2E Commissioner Reed Howard (SFS ’17) said the moratorium arose from Georgetown resident apprehensions about the neighborhood’s identity. Howard said that now, with shuttered businesses, the community is confronted with a fresh bout of soul searching.

“When it was first imposed, neighbors were really looking to protect the character of the neighborhood. They were anxious that it would turn into an entertainment district, and it was really put in place to protect the identity of Georgetown,” Howard said. “Throughout the years, neighbors have agreed that so far it has hurt businesses, and there haven’t been as many local restaurants opening up in Georgetown and it’s been harder for their doors to stay open.”

Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration Public Information Officer Jessie Cornelius said the board plans to take these issues into account as it makes its decision.

“When making a decision regarding a moratorium zone, the board takes several factors into consideration,” Cornelius wrote in an email to The Hoya. “It would consider all public comment that it receives and examine the effect of establishments on neighborhood peace order and quiet, including noise and litter issues; crime statistics, residential parking needs and vehicular and pedestrian safety.”

Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington legal counsel Andrew Kline stressed his client’s opposition to all liquor license moratoria, but he said the lifting the ban is unlikely to impact restaurants in Georgetown because the shortage has lessened over the past three years. Of the 68 total restaurant licenses, he estimated that over 20 are currently not in use, making them readily available for new restaurants that wish to operate in the neighborhood.

“I think it’s all kind of much ado about nothing,” Kline said. “It’s kind of like lifting an isolation order when there’s a disease outbreak when no one has seen the disease in two years. It’s just like ‘Okay, so?’ It’s an odd event.”

Restaurateur Ian Hilton, owner of the French bistro Chez Billy Sud on Georgetown’s 31st Street, agreed. Though the moratorium had deterred him from opening a restaurant in Georgetown in the past, he said other factors are more responsible for stifling the neighborhood’s restaurant development, particularly the neighborhood.

“The biggest factor is rents,” Hilton said. “Rents in Georgetown are extremely high, particularly on M Street where only really national chains can afford the types of rents they have there. So I would say the moratorium is a factor, definitely not the biggest factor, but lifting it is a good step for Georgetown to come out of its bit of isolation and get some new operators in the area.”

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