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Council Calls Black-and-White Public Nuisance

By Judith Scherr
Friday May 19, 2006

South Berkeley neighbors sparred verbally at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, most supporting Black and White Liquor store owner Sucha Banger in his quest to overturn the Zoning Adjustments Board vote to designate his store a “public nuisance” and impose restrictions, such as hours of operation, on the establishment.  

Voting 8-1, with Councilmember Kriss Worthington in opposition, the City Council majority supported the position of a smaller group of neighbors present at the meeting to testify in favor of the nuisance designation and its restrictions.  

Based on the council vote, the city attorney will prepare formal findings intended to show that the store is a public nuisance and the council will vote to affirm the findings, possibly next week. And as a result of the designation, Banger’s attorney Richard Warren told the Daily Planet he intends to sue the city. 

Problems at the store came to light after a July 2005 arson fire that forced temporary closure of Banger’s store. When a liquor store is closed more than 15 days, the owner must provisionally surrender his liquor license to the state, then reapply to reinstate it. When Banger reapplied, however, a number of problems came to light, including the purchase for resale of stolen alcohol by an employee and neighbors’ complaints of nuisance and criminal activities created by the presence of the store. 

When the fire caused the store to shut down temporarily, “the community realized that without his ability to sell liquor, the quality of life increased and they wanted that better quality of life to continue,” said Gregory Daniel, a Planning Department supervisor of code enforcement, who testified at the council hearing. 

But Jackie DeBose, who lives in the neighborhood, claimed the fight against the store was not simply about stopping nuisance activities. 

“It’s all about gentrification,” she said. “People are more concerned about property values.” 

And Marian Jones, who owns two nearby shops said, especially when she worked late, she was grateful for Black and White Liquor. “I feel protected by the presence of the store,” she said. 

Neighbor David Arnold, who had objected to nuisance activities around the store, conceded that it changed after the fire and that it was “peaceful, pleasant.” 

But things “changed under pressure,” he said. “My fear is that if the conditions [imposed] are diminished, it would revert” to previous nuisance activities.  

Councilmember Max Anderson, in whose district the store sits, underscored improvements were due only to enforce efforts of the city to regulate the store and called Black and White “a problem the city has to eliminate.” 

Banger’s attorney agreed that after the fire the storeowner had put in security cameras and better lighting. “Since the store reopened, the problems have gone away,” he said. “They no longer exist.” 

He said his client would agree to the city-mandated restrictions, but argued that if the business were deemed a “public nuisance,” the Alcohol Beverage Control bureau might shut the business down. “We can give you what you want,” he said. 

Worthington said he voted to oppose the designation because it seemed that evidence showed that the store might have once been a problem, but that it currently it was not. He questioned whether it was “proper to question someone [whose store] used to be a nuisance.”