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Friday, March 16, 2012

OLCC Approves First Food Cart Liquor License; Portland Plots Legal Action

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Fri, Mar 16, 2012 at 2:29 PM

Indelicately setting aside Portland City Council's strenuous objections and legal threats, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission today voted to give an annual liquor license to the Cartlandia food cart pod over on SE 82nd Avenue—a decision that marks an exciting first for Oregon.

And the OLCC's unanimous decision has city hall, well, um, pissed.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who (along with Mayor Sam Adam) persuaded the council to pass a pair of resolutions meant to push back Cartlandia's license, told me she was planning on meeting with the city attorney's office this afternoon to discuss "options." The city's first resolution was fairly nice, asking the OLCC to enact stricter rules for carts. But the second one, approved February 29, threatened to sic the city's lawyers on the issue.

"I'm disappointed because I think it's irresponsible," Fritz said, noting that "two more applications" have been submitted since this fracas began. "But I was expecting it."

The mayor, naturally, was venting on Twitter. He repeated the same improbable concern that Cartlandia's license would magically lead to some 700 carts all across Portland slinging hooch with little regard for neighbors and the scarce resources of our cash-strapped police bureau.

Screen_shot_2012-03-16_at_1.27.26_PM.png

The OLCC commissioners who explained their vote at their monthly meeting, as relayed by the Oregonian, weren't having any of it. UPDATE 4:10 PM: The OLCC's licensing services director, Farshad Allahdadi, also spoke to me this afternoon, and said the mayor's concern, as worded, was "not reasonable." More from Allahdadi after the cut.//

Liquor officials dismissed those concerns, and said they were more interested in helping out small businesses that provide a service to the neighborhood.

"In my mind, I see this like I sometimes see in downtown Bend — a roped-off beer garden," said commission member Ron Roome, who is from Central Oregon. Roome said he felt comfortable approving the license after the owners of the property, Roger Goldingay and his wife Carol Otis, agreed to close it after 10 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on weekends.

OLCC Chair Cassandra SkinnerLopata said the decision may set a new precedent for food carts, but she doesn't expect to see a flood of new approvals. Each applicant must get individual approval from the full commission, and most would not meet the requirements, which include fencing, monitoring and other restrictions.

That's what food cart advocates also are saying—that the requirements already are too stringent for any more than six to 10 pods in town to make liquor sales pencil out.

Fritz, though, said she still remains concerned about "an abundance" of carts and wouldn't allow that the "nearly 700" figure was a doomsday scenario. She said businesses will do what they must to keep competitive.

Of course, as the Mercury first reported, the city had a chance to weigh in on Cartlandia's application last summer. It says staff turnover led it to send, by default, a positive endorsement of the application signed by the police bureau's vice captain, Ed Hamann.

I've got a message into the OLCC over its response to the city's legal threats—if that's even an avenue Portland can legitimately pursue.

UPDATE 4:10 PM:
The OLCC's Allahdadi had a few things to clarify when we spoke. First, on the legal issue, he said he couldn't recall, at least in the recent past, the OLCC "having a challenge to a licensing decision in such a way."

He also wryly noted the distinction between city staffers working with the OLCC on this issue over the past several months and the relatively recent intervention of city hall.

"As far as I know, city hall's involvement has been a recent development," he says. "The OLCC has been working regularly with staff both at the police bureau and at the Office of Neighborhood Involvement regarding food cart application potentially coming to the commission and working through how we might address them."

Allahdadi then echoed what OLCC spokeswoman Christie Scott told me a few weeks ago, that Cartlandia won't, technically, set a precedent, because what worked for its license—a large controlled lot, the ability to hire extra staff, limited serving hours, etc.—may not be possible for other applicants. Every application is judged according to its own merits and flaws. He said the types of restrictions the OLCC placed on Cartlandia are technically even more stringent than the general rules for carts the city has asked for.

"This licensee is no different than any brick-and-mortar" licensee, he said. "Except that there aren't four walls and a roof around it."

I asked him about the mayor's doomsday number vs. the more realistic number floated by food cart advocates. Allahdadi said there'd certainly be a rise in applications, but gamely explained that 700 carts all getting licenses at the same time would clearly be "a stretch."

"I don't think it's reasonable to say that 700 licenses will be issued to food carts at one time," he says. "Even if every one of those cart owners chose to apply, we know, for a number of reasons—qualifications, business operations, what have you—that many would not be granted a license."

"It isn't anywhere near the magnitude" of what Fritz and Adams are wringing their hands about (those words, incidentally, are mine).

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