Giant lemon
The giant symbol of Lemon Grove. Courtesy of the City

Discount Market sits on the corner of Broadway and Main Street in Lemon Grove, right across from the giant lemon declaring the city having the best climate on earth. The store has been owned by the same couple for more than 20 years, selling general merchandise, food, convenience items and things you would typically find in a neighborhood market.

The employees are pleasant and the store is kept neat, clean and tidy. It’s close to public transit, has plenty of parking and just about everything you could ask for in a corner store. Except alcohol. No beer. No wine. No liquor.

So, when the owners approached the city for a Conditional Use Permit to sell alcohol, you really couldn’t blame them for wanting to expand their business and cater to the needs of their customers.

Turns out, however, that the needs of customers seeking alcohol along Broadway in Lemon Grove are already being met. In an area that is meant to have only two licenses for off-site alcoholic beverage sales, there are 10.

That’s called overconcentration and it’s not good for anybody, except alcoholic beverage manufacturers. It’s not good for residents, nor business owners. It’s not good for visitors to Lemon Grove nor local families, and it’s not good for sheriff’s deputies who have to handle the alcohol-related calls for service instead of something else.

When the Lemon Grove Planning Commission denied the permit request by Discount Market, it made the right call. The request was denied at the commission’s October meeting by a 4-1 vote. The reasons cited were the high crime rate and an overconcentration of alcohol licenses in the area.

Lemon Grove’s Municipal Code includes citywide regulations for alcoholic beverage sales to “deal with and ameliorate problems and adverse conditions associated with establishments which sell, serve or give away alcoholic beverages by restricting the location of such uses in relation to one another, and their proximity to facilities primarily devoted to use by children and families and the general public.”

Considerations are also made in regard to “the denial of a conditional use permit or through the imposition of conditions on a case-by-case basis, thereby preventing undue concentration and undesirable community impact of such uses, and by the imposition of reasonable conditions upon the operation of all such uses both existing and in the future.”

The Planning Commission should be applauded for its actions, especially after finding that crime in the neighborhood along and near Broadway is way higher than the rest of the city. It’s important because the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control usually follows the lead of local municipalities when granting a license.

On-sale licenses are issued to establishments that want to sell drinks to customers in a bar or restaurant setting. Off-sale licenses are for retailers where the customer takes the product off the premises for consumption. In this case, the area in question has 800% more off-sale licenses than state law allows.

Why are there more off-sale licenses than state law allows? There is an exemption called Public Convenience or Necessity. Under this, the ABC may approve the issuance of an alcohol license if they or a local government makes the determination that public convenience or necessity is served by the issuance of a license.

That is clearly not the case here. The problem is, there are no regulations nor other criteria that define what public convenience or necessity is. Both the ABC and local governments are free to define these terms however they wish and the arguments for public convenience come directly from the alcohol license applicants themselves. 

No one is taking responsibility for the harm overconcentration can cause. Until now, with the Planning Commission’s denial.

The ABC looks at the request for a liquor license, and if there is no push back from local government, they will assume it is wanted, and approve it even if the request puts an area above established limits. Thankfully, the Lemon Grove Planning Commission stopped this request before it could reach the ABC.

Businesses need to be good community members. Overconcentration increases pressure among retailers. This leads to enticing over-drinking and sales to underage patrons, as the focus of retailers is aimed at quantity of alcohol sold instead of the quality of life of communities and individuals affected by the alcohol sales. Overconcentration and emphasizing quantity of alcohol sales can impact the physical and emotional health of communities with increased instances of disease and decreased social engagement.

The types of crime that tend to increase in overconcentration areas include folks drunk in public, physical fights, DUIs and sexual assaults. These preventable arrests and calls for service drain law enforcement resources. In fact, the area surrounding this store has a crime rate that is more than 200% higher than other areas of the city.

By working with Lemon Grove residents to define guidelines on when to utilize and approve public convenience requests, local government will help create an environment that is friendly for both businesses and patrons and will go a long way to ensure a safe, happy and healthy Lemon Grove.

Mark Stapleton lives in Lemon Grove and is affiliated with the Lemon Grove Clergy Association.