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S.L. close to making liquor laws less restrictive

It could soon be last call for Salt Lake City's self-imposed liquor laws.

Mayor Ralph Becker and his team have been working for more than a year now on an alcohol overhaul that could shorten the distance between downtown bars and let patrons belly up to the bar for a libation at 9th and 9th.

"We've had some very restrictive liquor policies that, maybe at one time, many decades ago, made some sense," Becker said. "We're really just trying to clean things up."

As the city works to get its codes in line with changes to state liquor laws made earlier this year, the mayor and his staff are making good on a campaign promise to "normalize" liquor laws in Salt Lake City.

The left-leaning capital, it seems, has some of the strictest requirements in Utah.

"Salt Lake City is by far more restrictive (than most other Utah cities) in its alcohol laws and ordinances," planning director Wilf Sommerkorn said.

In addition to state laws that require a 600-foot buffer between bars and community facilities such as parks, churches and schools, the city currently requires at least 650 feet between alcohol-serving establishments.

That requirement can be as great as 2,000 feet in some parts of the city.

On top of that, no more than two bars are allowed on the same block.

The rewrite of the city's alcohol ordinances would essentially repeal those spacing requirements in parts of the city and instead rely on state code, zoning ordinances and the market to dictate where bars could open, Sommerkorn said.

The changes would also streamline the business-licensing process for bar owners and restaurateurs — a process city leaders said is too confusing and cumbersome.

"We make it too difficult," said Marla Kennedy, Becker's spokeswoman. "This makes us more open" to new businesses.

At Junior's Tavern, owner Greg Arata calls the proposed ordinance "progress."

When Arata had to move from 500 South and 200 East three years ago, the city's spacing requirements made it nearly impossible to find a new home.

"There are enough restrictions as it is," he said. "Downtown is a lot of vacant buildings. … The only people who want to take a chance on it are restaurants and bars."

Eliminating the two-bars-per-block limit should help downtown, Becker said.

"Anyone who has been to other cities knows when you go to downtown areas, there's a natural congregation of restaurants and different kinds of establishments where people are active," he said. "In Salt Lake City, those tend to be more spaced out because of the two liquor-servicing establishments per block face (rule)."

A list of conditions adopted by the City Council when it voted to allow social clubs in the city's residential mixed-use zones would also be included in the code changes. That list looks to mitigate the impact of noise, outdoor smoking and trash, among other concerns.

In most of the city, the code would limit the concentration of bars. Even downtown, Kennedy said, "we're not going to have bars every three feet."

The city plans to hold 11 focus groups for individual neighborhoods in September as it works to get the changes before the City Council by December.