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Council Dances Around Pub Permit Issue

To the chagrin of neighbors, the James Joyce gets to keep its newly acquired dance permit. But there's a catch and a number of conditions.

Sometimes it’s hard to please anyone. Such seems to be the case with downtown drinking and dancing in Santa Barbara.

On Tuesday, the City Council made a decision about the James Joyce pub that failed to satisfy not only the bar owners and the neighbors who oppose them, but also most of the City Council members themselves. At issue was whether the bar at 513 State St. should be able to have a dance permit under certain conditions — such as keeping a back door shut during dancing hours, and limiting the opportunity for patrons to "Get Up Offa That Thing" to three nights a week.

Tuesday’s hearing was an appeal of a February decision by the Fire and Police Commission to approve just that. Oddly, this case had two appellants — the owners and the neighbors — who opposed the decision for opposite reasons.

Despite its own reservations, the City Council decided to split the difference and uphold the commission’s earlier decision.

For patrons of the James Joyce — which, unlike surrounding clubs, is a venue for live music, not DJ dance mixes — the decision means two main things. First, there will continue to be dancing on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, as has been allowed since February. Second, dancers better be prepared to sweat a little more while the music is playing, because the back door will be closed, in an effort to lower the noise levels.

Lately, drinking and dancing on State Street have been a major local issue. In the past three years, one-third of all 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 police officials say the statistics for that area are improving.

Tuesday’s decision upset the bar owners because they wanted a dance permit without the conditions, the two opposing neighbors because they wanted no dance permit whatsoever, and several council members because they wanted a better tool to attack what they view to be downtown’s true devil: excessive noise and binge drinking.

“I feel like we’re using a hammer when we need a wrench,” Councilwoman Helene Schneider said. “If I’m going to the James Joyce and I’m hearing some good music … to have a law that says it’s illegal to dance just sounds so primitive.”

Nonetheless, Schneider and the other five council members who were present (City Councilwoman Iya Falcone was absent) voted to uphold the decision, for lack of a better option, some council members said.

On Tuesday, the neighbors consisted of the owner of an apartment complex located on Fig Avenue, across the back alley from the bar, and a spokeswoman from Hotel Santa Barbara, 533 State St. Both said the late-night noise from the bar and other downtown nightclubs has long been a hindrance to getting a good night’s sleep, both for complex residents and hotel customers, who in some cases have demanded their money back.

Giving the bar a dance permit, they argued, will exacerbate the problem because dancing is designed to attract more patrons, and leads to more drinking. Dancing is a marketing tool that drives people into the clubs to drink,” said Tamara Erickson, general manager of the Hotel Santa Barbara, 533 State St. “They make money, and we lose money.”

Susie Thompson, the apartment complex owner whose animosity with the Joyce runs deep — in 1999 she successfully challenged the bar’s construction of a patio she said was illegal — said she doesn’t believe the bar’s owner, Thomas Byrne, has earned the right to a dance permit. I think he’s charming, but I don’t think he’s earned it,” she told the council, adding that the bar lost its license in 2001 for selling liquor to too many minors. “None of you have to live in it, so you don’t know what it’s like … when you get just a few hours of sleep and you have to get up and function during the day. Meanwhile, Byrne said he doesn’t think it’s fair that the city will allow him just three nights of dancing a week, when louder, DJ-based clubs in the area can have dancing on any night. A few months ago, the bar received a citation from a police officer who caught people boogeyin’ on a no-dance night.

“We just want to not get another ticket, basically, he said. Plus, Byrne said, closing the back door will be bad for everybody.

“It becomes like an oven in there when the rear door is closed,” he said. Whats more, he said, closing the door will force smokers out the front door, onto State Street, thereby compromising the health of other State Street pedestrians.

One State Street businessman echoed Byrne’s plea to keep the back door open. Nate Hawky, an owner of the neighboring Wahoo’s Fish Tacos, 511 State St., said smoke tends to waft into the restaurant, leading to customer complaints.

“When you’re eating, the smell of that smoke is horrible,” he said. “If 15 or 16 people go out to smoke, it’s coming into my restaurant, and that’s not good.”

Tuesday’s debate came nearly four months after the council approved a staff-proposed dance ordinance requiring large nightclubs to seek renewal of their dance permits every year.

The 4-month-old ordinance also establishes a penalty system authorizing the city to revoke a dance permit after five violations of the law. Violations could include excessive noise, overcrowded bars or the presence of minors, among others.

Although the ordinance passed, several Council members on Tuesday were less than satisfied. In addition to Schneider, they include Mayor Marty Blum and Councilmen Roger Horton and Das Williams.

Das Williams
Williams has said he would prefer getting to the heart of the problem — noise and drinking — by trying to give the city more power in deciding which clubs are eligible for a liquor license. (That determination is currently made by the state Department of Alcohol Beverage Control, also known as the ABC.)

“I really don’t think 40 or 50-year-old married couples dancing at the James Joyce is the problem,” he said. “The business model of the James Joyce is far preferable to that of the other places that are sources of other problems.”

But the criticism was not music the ears of Councilman Grant House, who was on the committee that drafted the dance ordinance.

“We worked extremely hard on this new dance proposal,” he said, adding that the ordinance is superior to the enforcement tool the police had before, which was nothing.

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