Obtaining a liquor license for a restaurant or tavern in Washington D.C. can be one of the most difficult licenses to obtain in the entire alcohol beverage industry. Current Washington D.C. law allows for the neighbors of a prospective licensee to protest the issuance of a license, and force mandatory administrative hearings before the DC ABC Board. The effect is that a restauranteur who does not agree to the protest group’s terms has to wait until the DC ABC board hears the case, which could take 8-12 months and cost tens of thousands of dollars.
This process has been described by District restaurant owners as: “[an] intentional hijacking of the established ANC-ABRA Process . . . costing small business owners tens of thousands of dollars,” and “$800,000 [in costs] because old, retired, crotchety old [people] had nothing else to do,” and in one particularly blunt characterization, “just bull****.”
How Do I Avoid a Protest?
Prevention is better than cure in this scenario. Before filing an application for a restaurant license restauranteurs should:
- Research previous protests in their intended location/neighborhood.
- Review prior settlement agreements in their intended location/neighborhood.
- Meet with Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) early in the process and establish business understandings and a good neighborhood fit.
- Identify particular Citizens Associations known for protesting every license, and determine the Associations geographic range of protest standing.
- And, just in case, keep alternate properties in mind.
What if I’m Already Being Protested?
If a protest does get filed, it is best to quickly meet with the protest group and determine what their requests are. Sometimes protests can be ended with a simple Settlement Agreement. If settlement negotiations fail, it might be time to proceed with a hearing.