City Desk

Could a Loud Bar Get a Pass Because Its ANC Was Playing Hooky?

Most of the time, restaurants and bars that have violated city noise ordinances have a lot to fear from Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, whose votes can influence whether D.C. booze authorities will allow rowdy establishments to keep their liquor licenses. U Street NW's New Town Kitchen and Lounge might get lucky, however—not because it swayed its local ANC commissioners, but because not enough of them showed up to recommend stripping it of its liquor license.

This April, the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration announced the results of a task force's campaign to make unannounced visits to bars that had already been the subject of noise complaints from residents. The results: Of the 73 establishments the task force visited between March 13 and April 25, it found nine noise violations in all, coming from just five bars.

Two of those violations came from New Town, whose liquor license is up for renewal. But Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1B, missed the July 21 deadline to protest the liquor license because at its last two meetings, it did not have enough elected members for a quorum.

As Short Articles About Long Meetings first reported, the ANC failed to meet quorum at its July 17 monthly meeting, which was a make-up for its July 10 meeting, when the commission also failed to meet quorum. In order to meet quorum, seven of the commission's 12 elected officials need to be present. The July 17 gathering had only five commissioners, one of whom showed up midway through the meeting, according to ANC 1B Chair James Turner.

Four of the absent commissioners said ahead of time that they wouldn't be present, while two others—Sedrick Muhammad and Dyana Forester—were no-shows. Muhammad and Forester did not respond to a request for comment. The commission also failed to meet quorum at its monthly meetings in March and December.

"We're in the second year of the two-year term and many of them are not running again," Turner, who was at the July 17 meeting, tells City Desk. "When they become commissioners for the first time they become disillusioned." But, he adds, "there's a responsibility and commitment that needs to be met." (Muhammad and Forester have not yet picked up petitions to run for reelection, according to the D.C. Board of Elections.)

Because of these absences, the ANC missed the deadline to protest the renewal of New Town's liquor license as well as a new license for Signature Lounge, a hookah bar at 1920 9th Street NW. The Alcohol Beverage Control Board, the body that grants the liquor licenses, by law must gives "great weight" to ANCs' protests and recommendations.

The liquor licensing affairs committee of ANC1B had recommended that the licenses of these two establishments be protested because they disturb the peace, order, and quiet of the neighborhood. Nick Baumann, the chair of the committee, says that New Town Kitchen took over the liquor license from Tabaq Bistro and has not complied with previously agreed-upon noise-mitigation actions. Multiple neighbors have complained about the night time establishment. Signature Lounge, according to Baumann, wants to be able to keep its back outdoor patio open until 2 a.m. on the weeknights and 3 a.m. on weekends. The liquor licensing affairs committee had asked Signature Lounge to submit a letter from residents saying they would not be bothered by the noise, but the lounge never submitted the letter, which is why the committee wanted the ANC to protest the license.

"Obviously being ANC commissioner is a thankless job, and most of the people who do it have day jobs and families and other commitments," Baumann writes in an email.
"But I don't think it should be too much to ask to have seven of 1B's 12 commissioners to show up once a month."

New Town owner Howsoon Cham says he's met with the few neighbors that have complained about his place. Because New Town is located near the intersection of 14th and U streets, he says officials' expectations for quiet aren't really realistic.

"They don't want any pins drop sound coming out of there—to them that's the definition of noise," he says, attributing the dispute to a small number of repeat complainers. Signature Lounge could not immediately be reached for comment.

Turner has submitted a request to the ABC Board to extend the deadline to protest these licenses and has also requested that the board grandfather in the ANC's previous protests of New Town's liquor license.  The board is expected to rule on that today.

Jessie Cornelius, a spokeswoman for ABRA, says the board has already received other protests for New Town, including one from the Shaw-Dupont Citizens Alliance.

The liquor license for New Town Kitchen and Lounge could still be challenged, but either way, the residents living around the U Street establishment may want to ask their elected ANC reps to actually show up to their meetings.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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  • Jack McKay

    Any group of five residents can file a protest. The ANC doesn't have to do it, and some will argue that ANCs aren't ideal protestants, because some (in this case, most) commissioners live blocks away from the establishment in question.

    Why didn't the neighbors submit a "group of five or more" protest?

  • John C. Green

    As a member of the 1B ABC Committee, we work hard every month to govern, attend ABRA meetings and of course make quorum. I'm READY to change the status quo. JOIN ME!

  • Just Me

    Unfortunately this article jumps around too much and merges the issues of two different venues, New Town and Signature Lounge, into the same paragraphs instead of clearly separating them.

    A picture of signature lounges back patio area and its close proximity to multiple town homes on 9 1/2 street make it clear why there should not be a late night patio while those home are there. The south half of the west side of the 1900 block of 9th have been problematic for years. Just look at a google map and you can see how close the residences are to the businesses.

    New Town's major problem is the retractable roof and noise that escapes out the back of the building. The question is where were the noise reading taken, front or back. The new owner is correct about being close to 14th & U, so any noise reading in the front should be discounted, from the back should be addressed. However, given the source of complaints are from the notoriously nimby Wallach Place residents and the bogus neighborhood group SDCA, legitimate complaints are subject to the boy who cried wolf too many times. The article also jumps straight to stripping the business of their license, a step that rarely if ever is a result of noise issues.

    As for the ANC quorum, July and August is a notoriously bad time for quorums around the city, but the real issue in 1B is the geography it represents is way too large, particularly when you consider the range of issues that are covered. The scope of concerns span from McMillian Resovoir development to 16th Street bus lines to U Street business management to Georgia Avenue and Howard U growth impacts. Anybody wanting to represent the interests of their small single member district gets very little time to inform the other 11 members about their needs, particularly when every commissioner is looking at the issues from their own distinctly different perspectives.

    Unfortunately when redistricting (the process of redrawing boundaries based upon the new census numbers that occurs every 10 years) came around two years ago Jim Graham in best case was asleep at the wheel, and in worst case intentionally kept Georgia Avenue divided north and south by limiting the time to discuss how best to reapportion the Ward Starting far later than most Wards around the city, Graham then appointed one of his long time cronies, who was out of town on vacation for the majority of the time, to run the process.

    The burnout problem in 1B is further exacerbated by the massive demographic shift that is occurring and creating new crops of commissioners that while well meaning, lack any historical perspective on the very complicated issues they are faced with across this large commission. Throw in all the jabs, abusive encounters, and criticism heaped upon them by special interest groups that didn't get their way in issues before the commission, being an ANC 1B commissioner is one of the most thankless jobs one could subject themselves to in the city.

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