Kalispell Eases Restrictions on Bars Near Schools, Churches

By Beacon Staff

Anyone sitting in the Kalispell City Council chambers during its May 19 meeting witnessed one of the smoothest and most efficient pieces of work by a local government to occur in the Flathead for some time. A business owner came in with a problem, and within 45 minutes, the council had solved it in a way that pleased everyone in the room. If only government always functioned so seamlessly.

But despite the comity, Kalispell City Attorney Charlie Harball wonders if the council’s move could kick up some resistance at the June 2 meeting.

At issue was a city regulation, backed by state law, preventing any business that served alcohol from establishing itself within 600 feet of the front door of a school or house of worship in Kalispell’s commercial districts. In 2000 the city eliminated the 600-foot restriction for beer and wine licenses, but the restriction remained in place for businesses with an “all beverage” license, which allows serving liquor. The restriction does not apply to schools that operate as businesses, like tutoring centers, beauty schools or martial arts schools.

Bill Goodman, owner of the KM building and Red’s Wines & Blues pointed out that the regulation only restricts bars from moving near churches, but churches can and often do move within 600 feet of bars.

“This negative only works in one direction and that’s not really fair,” Goodman told the council. “Are they worried that the churchgoers will drink or that the drinkers will go to church?”

Goodman then demonstrated with an overhead photograph that enough churches and schools currently exist in downtown Kalispell so as to prevent any bar or restaurant from opening there, if it wished to serve liquor.

“We’re continuing and always trying to have our downtown grow and be revitalized,” said Janet Clark, co-owner of the Kalispell Grand Hotel and the currently vacant Painted Horse Grill. “We need restaurants and it is very difficult for restaurants to survive without beer and wine.”

John Hinchey told the council he has had several inquiries about starting a restaurant in the building he owns at 140 Main Street, but because of the current restriction, that property is blocked from serving liquor.

David Spear, pastor of the Foursquare South Church in Kalispell, said the restriction could be perceived as local churches somehow stifling business development, and he favored lifting it.

“There are a lot of issues that the church bears that don’t tend to be their fault,” Spear said. “It wouldn’t bother me if this was altered or changed or stricken.”

When the council took up the issue, most everyone agreed that the restriction should be lifted for places of worship, but Councilman Duane Larson introduced an amendment that would leave the 600-foot rule in place for schools, out of concern the downtown business district will expand to encompass some schools, including St. Matthew’s, Elrod Elementary and Linderman schools. After voting against that amendment, council compromised by cutting the restriction down to 300 feet for schools.

After the meeting, Goodman, also the president of the downtown business improvement district, praised the council’s decision to maintain a 300-foot restriction around schools, calling it “proper.”

But now, Harball wonders if the council realizes that in enacting a 300-foot restriction around schools, the city inadvertently extended a regulation throughout a larger part of the city.

The 600-foot restriction, which the council voted to change, only existed in the “B-4” central business district, essentially the core of downtown, from Second Avenue East to Second Avenue West, and from Flathead County Courthouse to the Kalispell Center Mall. But when the council voted to enact a 300-foot restriction for businesses serving alcohol near schools, the city code’s language will be changed in such a way that the regulation will take effect in the rest of the city’s business districts.

While the 600-foot rule was relaxed in downtown’s core, the council’s action created a restriction between schools and businesses serving alcohol in parts of the city where none previously existed.

“They do have to be 300 feet away from existing schools for all districts,” Harball said. “They put a limitation that wasn’t there before.”

The council’s vote will come up on second reading at the next meeting, leaving the opportunity to make changes to the May 19 vote. Harball thinks once council members have more time to read and think about the implications of their vote, some might change their minds. Any business owners who find themselves newly impacted by the restriction are likely to speak up at the next meeting as well.

“Don’t be surprised if, in two weeks, there’s a shift on council,” Harball said. “I think things happened last night that not everybody was really clear on.”

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