Testimony was mixed on Tuesday during a Washington State Liquor Control Board hearing about whether businesses should be allowed to sell alcohol after 2 a.m., an idea the board is considering at the request of the city of Seattle.
Several speakers at the Vancouver City Hall hearing said they were concerned about increased drunk driving, and said that more impaired drivers on the road could stretch rural police forces too thin. But some supported the rule change, saying it would boost local economies and that each city should get to choose whether to extend te 2 a.m. cutoff. About 30 people showed up to the hearing and seven people testified to the board.
State law bans the selling of alcohol between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., but the liquor control board is considering a Seattle petition that would allow individual cities to extend the hours that some businesses, such as bars and nightclubs, are allowed to serve alcohol. Seattle officials have discussed the possibility of allowing people to purchase alcohol 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in their city. Any city could ask the Liquor Control Board for an exemption from the 2 a.m. sales cutoff.
If the rule changed and Vancouver requested such an exemption, people from communities outside of Vancouver could drive into the city, drink into the early morning hours and then drive back home, Battle Ground Police Chief Bob Richardson said during his public testimony. Richardson said his department is not staffed to handle more drunken drivers on the roads past the current bar closing time.
Likewise, he said many other cities across the state would have the same problem. “Most of the (police) agencies in the state are small,” Richardson said.
The Vancouver City Council has not discussed the issue or taken a position on it, the city’s program and policy development manager, Jeanette Bader said by email on Tuesday. Clark County commissioners submitted testimony saying they don’t want any changes to the 2 a.m. cutoff rule for cities in the county.
Retired Vancouver resident Don Unruh testified against the rule change, reminding the liquor control board of what hap
pened in eastern Washington before federal law set a uniform drinking age of 21. Students at Washington State University were driving into Idaho, where the legal drinking age was lower.
Unruh said he worried that if Vancouver extended its alcohol sales hours, a similar migration of drunken drivers could come up from Portland after its bars close.
“A lot of the accidents that occur in the early morning hours are alcohol-related,” Unruh added.
Others testifying said that the potential boost to a city’s economy should not outweigh the public safety concerns when it comes to deciding on the issue.
Liquor Control Board Chairwoman Sharon Foster told one man testifying that there are statistics available online to demonstrate how similar laws work in countries such as Norway, Great Britain and Canada. Another person testifying said European countries are better equipped to handle extended hours for alcohol sales because they have more robust public transportation systems.
Kimberly Bennett, president of the tourism promotion group Visit Vancouver, expressed support for the rule change in written testimony to the board.
“This amendment would allow for more flexible liquor service hours within defined geographic areas, such as downtown commerce centers and event facilities, thereby promoting and potentially increasing economic activity through visitor spending,” Bennett wrote.
Clark County commissioners also submitted written testimony in support of the rule change, but clarified that “it is our desire to keep the hours in our jurisdiction as currently stated in law.”
According to their public testimony, they are “supportive of that request so long as it does not morph into a uniform mandated extension of service hours statewide.”
To receive the exemption from the 2 a.m. alcohol sales cutoff, a city would need to pass an ordinance outlining the terms of its extended-hours plan. Then it would need to apply to the liquor control board for the exemption. The exemption would apply to businesses that sell alcohol for people to drink on the premises, such as in a bar, but hours could not be extended to grocery or convenience stores selling alcohol, the board’s spokesman Brian Smith said Tuesday.
A city could seek the exemption for the entire city or limit it to a specific area within the city. While applying for the exemption, the city would need to provide an impact statement from law enforcement, statements of support from residents and businesses affected by the exemption, and an explanation of how the exemption would benefit the city.
If a city is granted an exemption, city officials would be required to submit annual reports to the liquor control board outlining any public safety problems occurring in areas with extended hours for alcohol sales.
The meeting on Tuesday was the board’s second public hearing on the issue; the first one took place March 12 in Seattle. The board will host hearings on April 11 in Kennewick and April 16 in Spokane.
For those unable to attend Tuesday’s hearing, the liquor control board is accepting public comment by email at email@example.com or by mail at 3000 Pacific Ave. S.E., Olympia, 98501. The public comment period continues through May 1, and the board is expected to make its decision May 7.