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Santa Barbara Council Pulls Plug on Bar’s Request for Dance Permit

Officials cite the Bricks Cafe's past violations of rules in their unanimous vote to uphold an earlier denial.

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The Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday denied Bricks Cafe owner Wally Ronchietto’s request for a dance permit. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

The Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday denied a lower State Street cafe’s request to allow people to dance to its live music, citing, among other things, its past violations of rules regarding dancing and amplified music.

The council’s 7-0 vote to uphold the denial in late April of a dance permit for Bricks Cafe by the Fire and Police Commission means that when Bricks patrons listen to live music played by jazz musicians or acoustic guitarists, they still can’t dance.

The vote comes at a time of high frustration on the part of city officials and the hotel industry over the excessive noise and alcohol-related criminal activity brought to the lower State Street area by larger techno nightclubs.

Bricks owner Wally Ronchietto said he wanted to allow dancing and amplified music in part to drum up more business for his bar and cafe, which is surrounded by several dance clubs whose thumping techno music attracts hordes of college-age revelers.

Ronchietto was seeking a modified permit that would allow a limited amount of dancing — no more than 18 people at a time — three nights a week, until midnight, whereas the larger clubs allow many more dancers, seven nights a week, until 1:30 a.m.

But council members on Tuesday expressed irritation and said Bricks Cafe has jumped the gun, when it should have been jumping through hoops.

On April 6, Bricks was cited by police for allowing people to dance to the music of a deejay despite the cafe’s lack of a dance permit from the city.

On June 13, an official with the state Alcoholic Beverage Control paid a visit and saw that the bar was hosting a band with amplified instruments, despite the bar’s lack of a permit for amplified music from the ABC. Ronchietto had applied months ago for such a permit, but the application was still pending at the time of the violation. (In what amounted to curious timing, the ABC’s official denial came in on Tuesday, just a half-hour before the City Council meeting.)

Ronchietto has said the legal breaches happened without his knowledge, and that he has fired managers on two occasions as a result. The council was unimpressed.

“I have known Wally for many years,” Councilman Roger Horton said. “I count him as a friend and an outstanding citizen. … I have also been in the restaurant business, and the buck stops with the owner.”

He added, “In reality, what’s happened since that commission made its decision is these things have not gotten better, they’ve gotten worse.” 

City officials were also disappointed with Ronchietto’s statement to the council on Tuesday that he was going to appeal the ABC’s denial of his request for a permit for amplification.

“My concern is he might win that appeal, and I don’t support more amplified music on that block,” Mayor Marty Blum said.

Two people spoke in defense of Bricks Cafe, at 509 State St., the former site of Mexican restaurant Casa Blanca.

One of them, musician Stuart Washington, said he understands the concerns of city officials as they relate to the larger nightclubs, but he said Bricks is different.

“With the music level of the places that play disco … you know, you can lose your hearing,” he said. “It’s mind boggling. But that’s not what’s happening at Bricks.”

Bricks, he said, promotes the concept of live musicians playing in live bands with singers, guitarists and other instrumentalists.

“Wally has always provided the music that you could bring your children” to listen to, he said. “And dancing? There’s nothing like watching someone doing the tango, or watching someone doing the waltz, or watching someone embracing themselves because they are feeling the music.”

In the past three years, one-third of all of the city’s reported late-night criminal offenses — and half of the alcohol-related offenses — occurred in the area with the downtown dance clubs, although officials say the statistics are improving.

In an attempt to address the matter, the council in January approved a new dance ordinance requiring large nightclubs to seek renewal of their dance permits every year. The ordinance also allows smaller venues — such as Bricks — to apply for modified permits.

On Tuesday, Councilwoman Iya Falcone said the city’s new dance ordinance doesn’t adequately address the issue of amplification.

She said amplification is not necessarily equivalent to earth-rumbling bass.

“Even a small band comes with (some amplification). You’ve got to plug in your two-by-one something or other, and that’s not an amplification that’s going to blow out blocks,” she said. “I’m going to support this motion (to deny) with a heavy heart.”

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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