Anybody wanna sue the S.L.A.?

By Elizabeth O’Brien

Fed up with what members call the state’s indifference to their quality of life, a local community group is considering filing a class action lawsuit against the New York State Liquor Authority, and is actively searching for plaintiffs to join their suit.

As more bars and clubs crowd Downtown, neighbors complain of sleepless nights and dirty sidewalks. The situation has grown worse in recent years as the State Liquor Authority ignores the spirit of the so-called “500-foot rule,” which requires new establishments to take extra steps when they apply for a liquor license within 500 feet of three or more on-premise liquor license holders, say members of the Flatiron Alliance.

They charge the authority with violating the spirit of the law when it allows many liquor licensed-premises within 500 feet of one another.

“Basically, they don’t live here and they don’t care, and they just dump this madness on New York City,” said Michele Golden, co-vice president of the Flatiron Alliance, whose members reside in the area roughly from 14th St. to 24 St., Park Ave. S. to Seventh Ave.

Golden has lived on 18th St. in the Flatiron District for 20 years. Over the past 10 years, the proliferation of bars and clubs nearby has brought noisy patrons and drug dealers to her block, Golden said. She sleeps with earplugs every night and tries not to open her windows.

But when Golden and others voice their concerns at hearings held by the S.L.A., the authority often ignores their pleas, Golden said.

According to state law, the S.L.A. must decide whether it is in the public’s best interest to open another liquor-selling bar, club or restaurant when there are at least three in the immediate area. Yet, the authority almost always decides that the expected tax revenue justifies opening another establishment, regardless of the neighbors’ distress, said Phil Byler, one of the attorneys representing the Flatiron Alliance, from the Manhattan law firm Nesenoff & Miltenberg.

A representative from the S.L.A. disputed this claim, saying that the community’s input counts.

“We give great gravity to their point of view,” said J. Mark Anderson, S.L.A. deputy commissioner for administration.

The Flatiron Alliance has already filed a lawsuit against the State Liquor Authority challenging the authority’s decision to issue liquor licenses to the former Limelight nightclub, now called Avalon, located in an old church on Sixth Ave. near 20th St. By one count, there were nearly 20 liquor-selling establishments within 500 feet of the famed disco, said Susan Finley, the other co-vice president of the Flatiron Alliance.

That suit is currently stalled in the New York Appellate Division, Byler said.

The class action suit might conceivably unite, for example, East Villagers — who are currently raising funds for their own suit against the S.L.A. for allowing bar oversaturation on St. Mark’s Pl. and other streets — with the Flatiron Alliance.

David McWater, who owns four bars on Avenue A and is vice president of the New York Nightlife Association, said that he supports the idea of a class action suit against the S.L.A., although he doubts it will ever succeed.

“If they ever enforce the 500-foot rule, every one of my businesses would be worth a heck of a lot more than they’re worth now,” McWater said. This is because if it becomes more difficult for liquor-selling establishments to open up near existing premises, those wanting to open up new bars, restaurants or clubs will be more likely to buy him out, McWater explained.

McWater is a member of Community Board 3, whose district covers the East Village and Lower East Side. Recently, some local residents have been expressing frustration that bar and nightclub owners are gaining increased representation on community boards, which advise the S.L.A. on liquor license applications.

However, McWater, for one, said having him on the board is a help for the community.

“I’ve been trying to find a realistic approach to the problem,” he said, noting he tries to discourage bars from opening in areas that are already oversaturated with them. For example, he said, he voted against recommending a liquor license for Schiller’s Liquor Bar, Keith McNally’s new place on Norfolk St., that neighbors, led by activist Susan Howard, had opposed.

“There’s nobody who understands these issues more than I do,” McWater said.

On the other hand, he said, the community board’s resolutions carry no weight with the S.L.A.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” he said of the board’s positions. “Find me a place where we voted no and the S.L.A. turned [the application] down.”

The only way to deal with the situation is to threaten the applicants that they will face community opposition for a new license or a renewal, then force them to agree to specific stipulations on their operation.

“The best thing is when you got ’em scared to revoke — make a deal,” McWater explained.

However, Dan Willson, a spokesperson for Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields — who appoints the community board members — said that only a handful of the 600 community board members in Manhattan are nightlife business owners.

Flatiron Alliance attorney Byler said their class action suit was still in the preliminary planning stages. Nevertheless, he vowed that his clients would keep trying to bring some accountability to the issuance of liquor licenses throughout the city.

“We’ve got to somehow confront the S.L.A.,” Byler said.

Those interested in information about the Flatiron Alliance’s class action suit are being asked to contact Susan Finley at Finley@echonyc.com.