Fircrest keeps moving toward changing ‘dry’ status

Staff writerJune 20, 2014 

The Fircrest City Council continues to take steps to change its Prohibition-era status as the only “dry” city left in Washington. It agreed this week to begin looking at how to make it legal for businesses to sell alcohol by the glass in parts of the city where it’s now prohibited.

But people hoping to compliment a meal with a glass of wine this year might be disappointed. Fircrest officials are pursuing making changes at both the local and state levels – a process that could take many months.

The council requested at a special meeting this week that the city planning commission look at changing city code. A public vote would also be required before alcohol sales could be fully legal.

But going to the ballot presents a danger of unintended consequences: If a majority of voters opted to keep Fircrest dry, the whole city would be swept up in the ban. That means eight businesses would have to stop selling alcohol by the glass in the annexed section of the city where alcohol sales are currently allowed.

To prevent this outcome, city leaders want to work on a parallel track with state legislators. A state law created specifically for Fircrest in 1994, which allows alcohol sales only in annexed parts of the city, would have to be changed.

The council directed City Manager Rick Rosenbladt to work with legislators to amend the law so that a public vote wouldn’t disrupt current alcohol sellers. The Legislature doesn’t convene again until January.

At Monday’s special meeting, the council also discussed holding a non-binding advisory vote to gauge public support prior to an official vote. The city would use that opportunity to educate people about how Fircrest could regulate alcohol businesses. Several council members said they expect people will be more supportive of a change if they know the city could prohibit bars, nightclubs or taverns and regulate hours of operation.

“We’ve got to get out and let people definitively know we can control a lot of the regulations in the city, so that when people vote they understand what they’re voting on,” Councilman Matthew Jolibois said Tuesday.

If an advisory vote were held and the majority wanted to keep the status quo, the council said it would drop the proposed changes.

The council’s direction came three weeks after council chambers were packed by people who want to see alcohol sales by the glass allowed consistently in the city. Comments from the meeting convinced council members that regulations are needed to encourage family-friendly restaurants, or similar businesses, to open in Fircrest.

The planning commission has been asked to draft those regulations. Public feedback will shape the commission’s recommendation.

Previous Fircrest councils have discussed legalizing liquor sales by the glass, but none has pursued it to the point of changing the law. Jolibois said he brought it up in April 2013, and it went nowhere.

A consensus for change started to form this year.

Mayor David Viafore, the council’s longest-serving member, previously opposed holding a public vote because he worried about the ramifications on the Mildred Street commercial corridor. When the city annexed the corridor in the 1990s, it promised businesses — mainly the Fircrest Golf Club — that joining the city wouldn’t hurt their operations. That’s why the city worked with state legislators to create an exception in state law to allow part of the city to be “dry” and the annexed portion to be “wet”.

But after hearing from people who want a drink with dinner while in Fircrest, Viafore conceded an advisory vote would be “a prudent thing to do.” Viafore would like to see the vote happen in 2015 at the earliest, he said.

The vote could be held earlier if enough Fircrest voters were to sign a petition forcing the issue on the November 2014 ballot. The petition must be filed by August.

Spring Lake Cafe restaurant owner Scott Clement had enough signatures to force a vote 10 years ago but didn’t submit it to the Pierce County Auditor as required. His cafe is located in the part of Fircrest where liquor can’t be sold by the glass.

When Clement heard the council was taking up the debate again this year, he said he would consider trying to force a public vote again if nothing was done. Now he says he’s encouraged the City Council might actually change the law.

“It felt to me like this is going to happen at some point,” he said Wednesday from his restaurant.

Clement said he’s not aware of anyone circulating a petition.

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467 brynn.grimley@thenewstribune.com

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