Addressing Alcohol Outlet Density at the Local Level

What strategies are available to local governments to work on issues related to alcohol outlet density?

As noted above, some states grant local governments licensing authority, either exclusively or in a joint state/local licensing system. In these states, decisions regarding alcohol outlet density can be controlled directly by local governments. Careful attention should still be given to state preemption that may restrict certain aspects of the licensing authority. If such restrictions exist, jurisdictions should consider using land use tools as an alternative.

Local land use regulation is usually exercised through a permit process found in local zoning ordinances.11,13 There are two distinct types of regulations: conditional use permits (CUPs, sometimes referred to as Special Use Permits) and public nuisance abatement ordinances, referred to here as deemed approved ordinances(DAOs). Typically, CUPs are used to regulate new alcohol outlets and DAOs are used to regulate existing outlets. Together, these two tools can prevent overconcentration by restricting the number, location, and type of new alcohol outlets. They can also be used to reduce problems associated with the operations of existing outlets.11,13

Local governments may be able to impose license or permit fees as part of their regulatory schemes, using the fees to cover the costs of enforcing the ordinances, monitoring retailer practices, and educating retailers regarding the ordinance and strategies for reducing the likelihood of violation.13,44

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How do conditional use permits (CUPs) work to regulate alcohol outlet density?

When a state’s preemption doctrine doesn’t apply, local governments can require local businesses, including alcohol retailers, to obtain and maintain a CUP as a condition of staying in business.11,13 CUPs can be powerful tools for addressing alcohol outlet density when they use the following types of regulatory measures:

  • Restricting the number of outlets within specific geographic regions as well as across the entire jurisdiction
  • Prohibiting outlets near sensitive locations
  • Imposing distance requirements between alcohol outlets to avoid clustering
  • Establishing a cap on the percentage of alcohol outlets per total retail businesses in a geographic area (thereby promoting retail diversity and deterring clustering)
  • Permitting outlets only in specific areas of the jurisdiction

CUPs can also help ensure that new outlets do not engage in retail practices that may contribute to public health and safety problems. For example, CUPs can limit the hours of sale (an important consideration when issuing permits to restaurants, preventing them from morphing into bars) and require security staff or other measures to reduce violence, crime, and public nuisance activities.11

As this suggests, CUPs can be a useful tool for local governments seeking to reduce problems associated with alcohol outlet density. Still, as discussed above, local licensing is a more powerful tool for those states that permit it.

For example, the Ventura County Behavioral Health Department in California has published a model CUP ordinance that can provide more details regarding how CUPs can be used to reduce problems associated with alcohol outlet density.13

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How do deemed approved ordinances (DAOs) work to regulate alcohol outlet density?

Retail outlets in operation prior to the enactment of a conditional use permit (CUP) are generally treated as “non-conforming uses” and are usually permitted to continue operation without being subject to the CUP restrictions. DAOs provide a means to regulate these existing outlets to reduce problems associated with alcohol outlet density. As discussed above, state preemption may restrict the extent to which DAOs or similar tools can be used by local governments.13,44

DAOs automatically issue permits to existing outlets, granting them “deemed approved” status and allowing them to continue operation so long as they adhere to specific performance standards. Usually, the performance standards focus on abating public nuisances, such as loitering, increased police calls, noise, drug dealing, etc., and adhering to state and local laws. The scope of the performance standards will depend on the extent to which the state preemption doctrine limits local action. This will vary by state.11

Violations of the ordinance are handled at the local level, and if violations are found, the deemed approved permit can be revoked and the business must close. A DAO is potentially a powerful tool for local communities to use in addressing problem alcohol outlets and encouraging changes in operations.11

As this suggests, DAOs can be a useful tool for local governments seeking to reduce problems associated with alcohol outlet density. Still, as discussed above, local licensing is a more powerful tool for those states that permit it.

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What resources are available for implementing local alcohol outlet density regulations?

For a full list of resources on the topic of alcohol outlet density, click here. Three resources may be particularly useful:

  1. As noted above, the U.S. Community Preventive Services Task Force has recommended that local governments regulate alcohol outlet density to reduce alcohol-related problems. The Guide to Community Preventive Services website provides a review of the relevant research, an analytic framework for understanding the relationship between alcohol outlet density and public health problems, and a summary of gaps in the research literature.
  2. The Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA), in collaboration with the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, produced Regulating Alcohol Outlet Density: An Action Guide for communities and health departments interested in learning more about implementing policies to reduce alcohol outlet density. It includes a review of The Guide to Community Preventive Services recommendations on the topic, a discussion of the role of health departments, a review of pertinent legal and community issues, and action steps for implementation.
  3. Ventura County Behavioral Health Department (Alcohol and Drug Programs) published Best Practices in Municipal Regulation to Reduce Alcohol-Related Harms from Licensed Alcohol Outlets. The document provides information on regulating retail outlets as well as a model conditional use permit (CUP) and deemed approved ordinance (DAO) provisions.

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