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Local News

Santa Barbara City Council Votes to Let Madison’s Dance Again

The 4-1 vote overturns a Fire and Police Commission decision to deny the sports bar's request for a permit.

Now might be a good time for patrons of Madison’s Sports Grill on State Street to do a victory jig.

To the relief of the bar’s owners, the Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday overturned the May decision of the Fire and Police Commission to deny the establishment’s request for a dance permit.

The 4-1 decision means patrons of the bar at 525 State St. still will be able to dance after all, as they have been allowed to do since 2001.

On May 22, the Fire and Police Commission voted 3-1 to deny the bar’s permit request on the grounds that the establishment had failed to reapply for a new permit when ownership changed hands in 2006. Technically, that meant the club had been operating without a dance permit for two years. City officials allowed the bar to continue to let people dance without a permit until after Tuesday’s hearing.

Tuesday marked the third time in less than five months that an establishment on the 500 block of State Street had come before the City Council to appeal a decision by the commission about patrons’ ability to dance. The other two were Bricks Café at 509 State St. and the James Joyce pub at 513 State St. Unlike Madison’s, both of those owners walked away disappointed. 

About six months ago, the council, responding to heightened alcohol-related criminal activity in the area, radically amended its dance ordinance in an effort to pay closer scrutiny to the nightclubs in the beer-soaked downtown entertainment district.

Tuesday’s decision came over the objections of management from two hotels on State Street, Hotel Santa Barbara and the Holiday Inn Express, who say their businesses bear the brunt of the raucous behavior and loud noise that accompanies the high prevalence of dance clubs in the area. 

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.

On Tuesday, Fire and Police Commission member Dan Signor told the council that he believes the bar owners’ failure to reapply was intentional. “It is my determination they tried to give us the shuffle,” he said.

Owners Derek and Diane Harding emphatically disagreed, making the case that it was an honest mistake — and one from which they had nothing to gain. “There is absolutely no benefit for us to have shirked or intentionally avoided this ordinance to put this $750,000 investment at risk,” Derek Harding told the council. “It’s absurd to think we would do so.”

He said losing the dance permit would cost the bar an estimated $780,000 annually. “It would cripple the business and potentially cause it to close,” he said. “I think this is a little harsh.”

Derek Harding added that the bar has been a good neighbor since he and his wife took majority ownership two years ago, citing several voluntary sacrifices they have made that aren’t required by law.

For instance, he said, the dance club removed its subwoofer speakers, which blast the deep, low-end bass sounds that tend to reverberate through even the thickest of walls.

Also, he said, the establishment’s policy strictly forbids minors unaccompanied by an adult from entering, even though the bar’s liquor license from the state department of Alcoholic Beverage Control allows unaccompanied minors until 10 p.m.

In addition, Harding said that the policy at Madison’s is to keep the back door closed, and suggested that much of the noise that generates complaints from Hotel Santa Barbara next door might actually be coming from the bar next door to Madison’s. That bar, O’Malley’s, has a back patio area where people regularly congregate, he said.

John Greer, an attorney representing Hotel Santa Barbara, scoffed at the idea that Madison’s has been a good neighbor, pointing out that the criminal activity at the location was once so high that the bar lost its dance permit for a year in 2000.

At the time, he added, Diane Harding was a manager. What’s more, he said, the bar on at least one recent occasion hosted a “fire tossing” entertainment event, prompting a warning from a fire inspector.

Above all, he argued that the decision of the Fire and Police Commission be upheld. “It just doesn’t make any sense they should be excused because they claim they didn’t know about any of this,” he said.

The council was generally unmoved by Greer’s arguments. It also unanimously disagreed with the reasoning of the Fire and Police Commission.

“Every once in awhile, there is something to an inadvertent whoops,” Councilwoman Iya Falcone said. “I don’t think there was an intention here to defraud or get away with or subvert any of the process.”

She said she has been to the area at night and finds it plausible that much of the nightlife noise bouncing against the hotel’s walls originates from O’Malley’s, which is two buildings away from the hotel.

“They have an open area backyard, a fairly large one, and they also have an upstairs patio — sort of like a veranda in New Orleans — and there is a tremendous amount of chatter and music and smoke and everything else that wafts right up the wall to Hotel Santa Barbara,” she said. 

Councilman Das Williams said he appreciates the compromises the bar owners made in an effort to be good neighbors.

“Removal of their subwoofers is a sacrifice I wouldn’t have made,” he said. “That is something obviously a lot of young people look for.”

Councilman Dale Francisco, who cast the lone no vote, said he agreed that the Fire and Police Commission erred in its interpretation of the ordinance, saying Madison’s failure to reapply wasn’t among the stated grounds in the new ordinance for denying a dance-permit request. But Francisco, who campaigned last November partly on the premise that he wanted to restore authority to some of the city’s appointed advisory commissions, argued that the council should send the decision back to the commission for reconsideration.

“They should be giving the permit,” he said. “They should be doing this job.”

A majority of the council disagreed, and voted 4-1 — with council members Helene Schneider and Roger Horton absent — to grant the bar its dance permit.

Included in the motion was a clause requiring that the bar continue to operate without the subwoofers, and that the city inspect the soundproofing that the owners say was installed in the ceiling.

Police also aim to ensure that music can’t be heard at a distance greater than 50 feet away from the establishment.

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

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