Cape liquor law challenged

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Debby Erlbacher wants Cape Girardeau's liquor license ordinance to change.

"I don't know what kind of fight I'm going to get on this," she said. But on Monday, she appeared before the Cape Girardeau City Council, appealing to members to reduce the distance required between her business, Francine's Gardens, and the nearby school and churches. Francine's Gardens hosts backyard weddings.

Cape Girardeau's current ordinance has been in effect since 1967, according to city attorney Eric Cunningham.

Erlbacher's shop, at 28 N. Pacific St., between Themis and Independence streets, has hosted backyard weddings for three years. The space can accommodate up to 300 people, she said. Using a loophole in the current ordinance, Erlbacher has been able to hire an outside company to handle the bar duties for the parties.

Cunningham said Erlbacher's request is unusual, in that a change in the ordinance would affect businesses, churches and schools citywide.

The state statute says liquor licenses cannot be issued if the establishment it within 100 feet of a church or a school or "other building regularly used as a place of religious worship." It also allows cities to extend the distance to as much as 300 feet. Cape Girardeau's ordinance requires 200 feet of space. The measurement is taken from the front of one building to the next.

The state statute allows schools and churches to give written consent and Erlbacher said she has already obtained letters from Trinity Lutheran School, just 113 feet away on Pacific Street, and five of the six churches in her neighborhood.

But the letters are useless, Cunningham said, because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the caveat was an "unconstitutional delegation of the city's legislative authority."

So she's asking the city to change the ordinance's required distance from 200 feet to 100 feet.

Mayor Jay Knudtson told Erlbacher it was unlikely a rule with such far-reaching implications would be changed for the sake of one business. But the city council agreed to review her proposal.

Cunningham said the first reading of the proposed revised ordinance will be at the council's Sept. 4 meeting. The second and third readings will be Sept. 17. Both meetings will include public hearings. If the ordinance passes, it would take effect 10 days after approval.

"How many businesses and how many churches it will affect, I genuinely don't know," Cunningham said.

If changed, the requirement would apply only to new liquor license applications but would affect any school or church in areas with the potential for alcohol sales.

Even if city officials agree to a shorter distance, Erlbacher would still have to apply and get a license.

"I always have the option of going to another location," Erlbacher said. But the shop has sentimental attachments. Her mom, the late Francine Seier, started the company more than 20 years ago, buying and renovating two 100-year-old homes and bridging them with a third building.

After Seier died nine years ago, the building was empty for several years. Erlbacher returned to revive the shop and gardens three years ago, renting the building from its owner. She wants to buy the building back in October. In order to do so, she said she wants to streamline her operation, which includes six small businesses devoted to weddings and similar special events. She wants to add her own bar service and stop paying an outside company to provide it.

Erlbacher said she spends approximately $15,000 a year on the gardens and hosts 50 weddings there each year. She offers photography, linens and china, food catering and flowers. She says wedding guests book local hotel rooms, buy gifts at area retailers and frequent downtown restaurants and bars.

"The bottom line is, this business does generate millions and millions for businesses in the area," she said.

Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce president John Mehner said it's difficult to judge the full economic impact of Erlbacher's business without knowing her direct sales figures.

Beyond that, he said, a general ratio is used to determine how many dollars a retail operations likes hers generates for other business. He said the typical formula is a $1-to-$1 ratio, though it could go as high as $1-to-$1.5.

He said her request will likely "get feedback from all the places currently protected, not to mention all the people turned down in the past."

He said virtually all cities have some kind of rule to separate schools and churches from drinking establishments.

None of the businesses belonging to the chamber have asked to challenge the distance requirement, he said.

Already at least one of Erlbacher's neighbors has called with concerns.

"What they didn't realize is, I've been running liquor for three years. If it hadn't been an issue for you for three years ...," Erlbacher said, trailing off. "I do weddings for a living, so I'll have some opposition from neighbors. So I'll have to cook a little barbecue for my neighbors and explain what I'm doing."

Then, she said, if they appear at the public hearing, "at least the comments will be educated comments."

335-6611, extension 127

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