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Black & White Liquor Not a Nuisance, Says City Zoning Board By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Tuesday January 31, 2006

The Zoning Adjustments Board handed a reprieve to Black & White Liquors Thursday night, declining to declare the 3027 Adeline St. store a public nuisance. 

On a 5-4 vote, the board opted to allow owner Sucha Singh Banger and his attorney to negotiate a c ity zoning certificate, which would impose some of the same conditions the board indicated last month that they would impose in a public nuisance finding. The zoning certificate will bind the conditions to the property and will remain in force in the even t of a sale. The store now has neither a use permit nor a zoning certificate because it was in business for many years under predecessors of the current owner and is considered grandfathered in under earlier, less stringent regulations which did not require them. 

The board gave significant concessions to the store owner, extending the proposed closing times, dropping a demand to hire a security guard and offering to drastically reduce the length of the log of digital video surveillance records the city had sought. 

The fate of the store just south of the heavily traveled Adeline Street/Ashby Avenue intersection has divided a community. Supporters of the store, led by letter carrier Martin Vargas, have praised Banger, while other neighbors have branded the store as the source of long-running community problems. 

Another group of neighbors, including Dawn Rubin, have contended that the store is a public nuisance and draws drunks to their streets and porches. A hefty city investigative report was produced by city staff setting out complaints. 

From the start of Thursday’s hearing, several ZAB members indicated they were willing to retract or loosen conditions they’d been ready to impose the month before, when on Dec. 8 the board voted 8-0 (with member Jess e Anthony absent) to direct city staff to prepare a resolution declaring the store a public nuisance and specifying conditions to impose. 

The shift became apparent early in the meeting. 

Dave Blake and Tim Perry, two ZAB members in particular, seemed rel uctant to impose the nuisance declaration. 

Blake said that he was reluctant to impose the heavier sanction because a public nuisance finding “is a big blot on someone’s record. I’ve gotten nervous about this.” 

Perry said he was reluctant to impose heavy sanctions because he had seen little evidence to connect the neighborhood problems and police reports mentioned in the lengthy staff report and reported at the December meeting with the store itself. 

“As I walk out of the Shattuck Theater I get accosted by panhandlers. Does that make them [the theater] a nuisance?” Perry asked, adding that he found it hard to connect reports of problems with drunks three blocks away with Black & White. 

“It’s been suggested that everything’s fine now, but I find it hard to believe that after years” of problems for neighbors “that it’s all fine now,” said ZAB member Bob Allen. “I think it’s entirely appropriate to proceed with a nuisance finding and impose conditions.” 

Allen then moved for the nuisance declaration, with a change in store hours and the removal of a condition that required Banger to hire a security guard. His motion was immediately seconded by Carrie Sprague. 

During a long debate that followed, resolutions were amended and substituted to the point where some members lost count. “I believe this is a record,” said Chair Andy Katz toward the end, when a total of three proposed actions were under consideration. 

Banger had switched attorneys in the interim, replacing Jerome Marks with Richard D. Warren, who took strong exception to some of the conditions in the proposed public nuisance declaration. 

Of 17 conditions in the staff’s declaration draft, Warren said his client would voluntarily comply with some but took strong exception to several—including a proposal to shut down the store at 9 p.m. 

In the end, the board—at Blake’s suggestion—went with an 11 p.m. closing time, with the proviso that Banger could later seek to remain open till midnight if no further problems developed. Allen, backed by Anthony, had urged 10 p.m., but after that failed, Anthony voted with the majority for 11. 

While the original order called for Banger to keep a one-year backlog of video recordings from the surveillance camera sought by the board—and which he subsequently instal led—Warren said the high cost of buying a computer drive to hold a year’s worth of data made the condition intolerable. 

While Warren had offered thirty days, the board was willing to settle for 90 days, which City Code Enforcement Officer Greg Daniel sai d was fine. 

Warren said Banger would voluntarily comply with a provision to meet with a neighborhood watch group. 

Another proposed condition bans the sale of fortified beer and wine—drinks in which higher proof alcohol is added to the beverages. ZAB Sec retary and city planner Deborah Sanderson said her staff would prepare the language based on state regulations. 


Neighbor concern  

Laura Menard, a former City Council candidate who is active on South Berkeley crime and policing issues, charged that contrary to the statements of Perry and Blake, Berkeley Police Officer Steve Rego had tied each of the police reports to the store. 

Rego was off duty Monday and unavailable for comment. 

Daniel had also defended the police reports during the hearing. “I have to reason to question the information the police gave me because I have worked very closely with them,” he said.  

Menard said “It was very discouraging to see all the testimony from the community documenting the public nuisance just thrown out” as well a s the debate about the connection between problems and police calls. 

She said she was also concerned about board member comments to the effect that area residents hadn’t met with the owner. “I know that’s not true, because I talked to Mister Banger myse lf, and I know others who did, too,” she said.1