City steps up nuisance business laws
New amendment expands law beyond late-night operators, wipes out signature requirements
01/25/2012 10:00 PM
The city is changing how it reviews operating licenses for businesses that get complaints from neighbors.
Last week, the city council pushed through a series of amendments aimed at tightening Chicago’s deleterious impact and public nuisance ordinance — a set of regulations that give residents in Chicago a platform for “addressing negative quality of life and public safety concerns in their neighborhoods” caused by new liquor license applicants or existing liquor establishments.
Drafted in 2007, the ordinance originally targeted bars, liquor stores and other businesses that brought violence and other unwanted issues into residential neighborhoods and provided community members the chance to petition the city to revoke liquor and businesses licenses if problems persisted.
Since going into effect, the city has fielded 106 requests from community members in Chicago to look into business practices of troublesome owners, 83 of which were liquor-related.
According to Jen Lipford, a spokeswoman for the city’s department of business affairs and consumer protection, only one of those requests has resulted in a license being revoked, and even in that case the owners are currently on a probation trial to remedy their issues with the neighborhood.
Lipford said that the low revocation-to-complaint ratio isn’t about the ordinance’s ineffectiveness, but has more to do with the willingness of owners and neighbors to communicate.
“In a lot of the cases, it’s been worked out with the business owner,” she said.
According to the regulations, a group of five or more residents who reside within 500 feet of a business can file a complaint with the state’s local liquor control commissioner and trigger a public hearing to examine whether or not a business is in violation of city law.
Under past law, if the commissioner found in favor of the business, a resident or group would have to gather signatures from over 50 percent of the voting residents within 500 feet of the establishment in order to continue the case.
But under the new ordinance, passed on Jan. 18, the requirement for community signatures is replaced with a provision which leaves the continuation of the “license disciplinary hearing” to the discretion of the commissioner.
Lipford said that this change was made in light of the difficulties that came with gathering the petitions.
“It was a big burden to put on the community that’s already been through a number of meetings,” she said.
She added that resident lists were based on voter registration forms, which were rarely up to date.
“So you have a list that isn’t quite that accurate,” she said.
The amendments also increased the scope and gravity of the ordinance, broadening the reach of the discretionary hearings to all non-liquor businesses and increasing maximum provisional fines from $1,000 to $5,000.
Conversely, businesses that go on the block will now be given 20 days to present a plan to address their neighborly problems; if accepted, owners will have six months to turn things around.
Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) was among the members of the Committee on License and Consumer Protection who unanimously approved the measures earlier this month.
She said that the ordinance looked to signal “a change in the way bad establishments can be dealt with.”
“It gives a business two or three bites of the apple,” she said.
Smith acknowledged that some in the hospitality industry may not be keen on the idea of replacing a 50 percent voting bloc with one or two distraught neighbors.
“While I can appreciate their concern, I think this is certainly worth trying,” she said, adding that “the vast majority of businesses in our ward are responsible operators.”
But while the changes seem to open up the playing field for residents who want to keep an eye on illegal business practices in their neighborhood, the new ordinance could prove to be deleterious to the businesses themselves, said Padraic Swanton, director of communications for the Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce.
“One person could maybe have their own personal issue lead to the revocation of an establishment’s liquor license,” he said.
Swanton added that, while the current commissioner seemed to give businesses a fair shake, “in the future, there’s the potential that the liquor control commissioner wouldn’t be as understanding to the needs of establishments.”
But for all of the scale-tipping that seemed to come with the new amendments, one aspect that Swanton did approve of was the measure to include non-liquor businesses in the ordinance.
“There’s something to be said about having a level playing field for everyone,” he said.