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City Gets Tough on Liquor Stores By MATTHEW ARTZ

Tuesday September 27, 2005

As part of a city effort to crack down on liquor store violations, Dwight Way Liquor may soon sell its last bottle of booze. 

To the cheers of dozens of neighbors Thursday, the Zoning Adjustment declared Dwight Way Liquor “a nuisance” and ordered it shut down. The store has been cited for violating city zoning and state liquor laws 45 times over the past 18 months. 

Dwight Way Liquor, at 2440 Sacramento St., remained open Monday, while owners, Abdulalaziz Saleh, Behjat Yahyavi and Johnny Shokouh prepared to appeal the ZAB ruling to the City Council.  

Deputy City Attorney Zach Cowen had recommended that the board reduce the store’s hours, but give it another chance to clean up its act. Since Berkeley has never closed a liquor store at the first ZAB nuisance hearing, Cowen warned that it could complicate the city’s efforts to win a court appeal filed by the store’s owners. 

“It seemed the zoning board was acting hastily without listening to their city attorney,” said the owners’ attorney, David Bryden. “Maybe the City Council will take a slower approach.”  

If the council dismisses the appeal Dwight Way Liquor would be the first Berkeley liquor store shut down since Brothers Liquor in 2001. 

Also Thursday, the ZAB declared Berkeley Market at 2369 Telegraph Ave. “a nuisance” and put the store on probation, which could lead to its termination if clerks continue to sell alcohol to minors. 

The two cases signal that Berkeley is taking a more aggressive tact against problem liquor stores, said Community Service Liaison Taj Johns. 

Johns said the increased enforcement has followed education of city staff by the State Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) on the city’s power to regulate liquor stores. ABC has authority over liquor licenses, but Berkeley can regulate liquor stores through its zoning laws. 

“We now feel we have the power to abate nuisance liquor stores,” Johns said. “We never felt that way before.” 

Key to the city’s enforcement of liquor stores is a $50,000-a-year ABC grant that funds training sessions for liquor store operators and decoy operations to enforce regulations. 

A police sweep in March 2004 found six of 15 targeted liquor stores sold alcohol to minors, according to ABC District Administrator Andrew Gomez. The usual violation rate on decoy operations is about 10 percent, he said. 

Since then, Berkeley police have filed 12 cases against Dwight Way Liquor for selling liquor after 11 p.m., which is prohibited in their use permit. Police also cited the store in one instance for selling to minors. 

On Sept. 2, the day after ABC slapped the store with a 15-day alcohol suspension, a Dwight Way Liquor clerk sold alcohol to an undercover police officer. ABC has scheduled a hearing on the store’s liquor license for Oct. 27. 

For the zoning board to shut down a liquor store it must first declare the store a nuisance, then find it in violation of city zoning laws. Many neighbors testified before the board that the store had subjected them to constant late night noise, harassment from store patrons, litter and crime. 

“It’s unbearable,” said Richard King who lives across from the store. “I’m woken up all the time by two or three cars blasting their stereos hanging out outside the store.” 

Dwight Way Liquor has so far eluded strong ABC sanctions by transferring its liquor license three times among its owners. Gomez, the ABC administrator, said that tactic is sometimes successful at giving troubled stores a clean slate. “We do an investigation into the applicant, but we don’t know if the applicant is the former licensee’s brother or sister,” he said. 

In the case of Berkeley Market on Telegraph Avenue, ABC put a hold on a proposed license transfer from the owner Iqbal Mumtaz to a corporation of which Mumtaz serves as the CEO. 

The attempted transfer came after ABC gave the store with a 15-day suspension and $2,228 fine for selling alcohol to minors and after its closing time. 

Gregory Daniels, Berkeley’s head of code enforcement, said at Thursday’s meeting that he considered Berkeley Market to be a predatory business because all of its violations involved the sale of alcohol to minors. 

But the ZAB went easier on Berkeley Market, which faced complaints from just three neighbors and received support from members of UC Berkeley’s student government. 

Speaking in his own defense, Mumtaz said he was buying an ID scanner and would now ID all of his customers. “I might have made mistakes, but I’ve learned from my mistakes,” he said. 

The ZAB required Mumtaz to reimburse the city for the costs of its enforcement actions and report back in six months on any new violations for selling alcohol to minors. 

Advocates for stricter alcohol policies are not satisfied with the city’s stepped up enforcement. They are drafting an ordinance that would establish a permanent monitoring system based on fees assessed to liquor store owners, said Laura Menard of the Berkeley Alcohol Policy Advocacy Coalition. 

Meanwhile, Councilmember Max Anderson said he has met with Berkeley’s Yemeni Grocers’ Association and won agreement for stores to stop selling single shot malts and packaging alcohol in brown paper bags. 

Omar Ahmed, owner of Lee’s Market, at 2700 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, and a member of the Yemeni Grocers’ Association, criticized the recent police stings as “harassment.”  

“They’re putting every store, even the good ones, in the same category,” he said. “They should recognize the good stores to give them some encouragement.”