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ZAB places strict restrictions on liquor store

By Hank Sims, Daily Planet Staff
Saturday October 27, 2001

Before a highly-charged crowd of South Berkeley residents, the Zoning Adjustments Board declared Brothers Liquor, at 3039 Shattuck Ave., a public nuisance at its Thursday meeting, and imposed a restrictive set of regulations on its future operations. 

Neighbors allege the store is the center of serious criminal activity in the area.  

In a recent six-month period, the police department responded to more than 200 calls at or near Brothers Liquor. Nineteen of those calls resulted in arrests for crack cocaine possession or sales, prostitution, public drunkenness or creating a public disturbance. 

In her report to the ZAB, Victoria Johnson, the city’s senior zoning enforcement officer, presented the board with two possible solutions.  

The first allowed the liquor store to remain open with sharply curtailed hours of operation, the posting of security guards and the obligation to submit to ZAB review every three months. The second would shut the store down completely. 

The ZAB voted 7 - 2 for the first option, and added an extra conditions of its own. 

Board chair Carolyn Weinberger suggested the store be mandated to chain-off its parking lot when it closed its doors at 9 p.m. Board member Deborah Matthews added that the store should be required to clean and maintain its exterior. 

At the suggestion of Mark Rhoades, the city’s director of current planning, the board also put language into the declaration that would automatically trigger another public hearing on the store – one which would presumably result in its closure – if the Berkeley Police Department receives more than four calls having to do with store activities per month. 

Monsoor Ghanem, the store’s manager, said Friday that the charges against his store were unwarranted, and he would appeal the ZAB’s decision to the City Council. Members of the audience hissed and shouted when the board discussed the option of leaving the store open with restrictions. Several ZAB members addressed the crowd directly, assuring it that the conditions imposed on Brothers were very tough, and any deviation from them would be swiftly punished. 

“We’re giving them enough rope to hang themselves,” said Weinberger. 

Rhoades said city staff came up with the compromise declaration after consulting with the city attorney’s office. He said the imposition of conditions as a first step would bolster the city’s case if it were sued by the store’s owners. 

“The courts take a very dim view of cities closing businesses without giving them a chance to clean up their act,” Rhoades said. “But if, after three months, this business does not comply with the conditions, we can set another public hearing and the ZAB can close them down. You will already have declared them a public nuisance.” 

Board member, Gene Poschman, provoked applause from the audience when he said he favored putting the store out of business. 

“I want to revoke the thing,” he said. “I think the city attorney is being far too cautious. We’ve got six, maybe eight votes here for revocation here.” 

But, he said, the staff report had swayed him. 

“The staff is the reason we’re not revoking their business tonight,” he said. “That means there will be a special weight on staff to monitor this closely.” 

Matthews, a resident of South Berkeley, shared Poshman’s reservations, but she, too, voted for the compromise option. 

“I have a hard time accepting the recommendations of staff,” she said. 

“In the community of South Berkeley, in a five-mile radius we have probably 10 liquor stores, each of them with the problems we have here before us.” 

“It’s really important to me that we develop some kind of standard for identifying and dealing with these issues.” 

Rhoades told the board and the audience that the new restrictions – especially the police department “trigger” he had proposed – would assure that the store would be severely punished if the problems continue. 

“There’s 40 or 50 pairs of eyes and ears in this room tonight that will be monitoring this situation,” he said. 

“Do you hear that?” Weinberger asked the audience. “If three months from now it hasn’t improved, you come back to us and we will yank their business.” 

Only board member Paul Schwartz and Marie Bowman, who substituted for board member Mike Issel at Tuesday’s meeting, voted against the declaration. 

Schwartz said he was in favor of the restrictions on the business, but he wanted to vote for complete closure to expedite matters.  

“I don’t think they’re going to be able to stay in business with these restrictions, so they’ll probably end up shutting down anyway,” he said. 

At the end of the hearing, Rhoades thanked the board for voting for the staff’s recommendations. 

“I know it was a very difficult decision,” he said.