Today, the Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a measure to roll back closing time for drinking establishments in unincorporated DeKalb County. Last call for alcoholic beverages will be 2 am on Sunday through Wednesday, and 2:30 am Thursday through Saturday, with establishments closed a half hour later. Previously, last call was 3:55 am most nights, with closing an hour later. Current ordinances requiring a Special Land Use Permit (SLUP) approved by the Board of Commissioners remain in force for drinking establishments within 1500 feet of residential areas and open after 12:30 am. This revision brings DeKalb roughly in line with other jurisdictions throughout the metro Atlanta region. The new law takes effect on January 1, 2018.
This measure addresses a persistent problem with Late Night Establishments (or LNEs, which include nightclubs, dancehalls and other drinking venues open late) which operated under a “grandfather” exemption to the SLUP requirement legally intended to preserve only rights vested before 2008. History shows that many such businesses place a substantial and unnecessary burden on surrounding neighborhoods and County regulatory resources. In the eight years since DeKalb imposed the SLUP requirement for LNEs, businesses have obtained grandfather status suddenly and with little documentation, often transforming themselves from conventional restaurants with bar service into nightclubs and dancehalls. The responsibility to accurately confirm their eligibility for grandfather status has proved too much for the County’s Planning and Sustainability Department, and the Police Department has not been able to differentiate between the various classifications that were administratively created. As a consequence, “grandfathered” businesses have proliferated, with operators even migrating from one venue to another as enforcement action closed code violators.
Research on the topic reveals that alcohol laws that are less restrictive than in surrounding jurisdictions are exploited by a trade attended by higher levels of alcohol-related pathology. Food consumption declines in later hours in favor of alcohol, and drivers to and from such venues are more likely to be intoxicated. Inebriation leads to more noise and fuels uninhibited conduct or conflicts that spill out into the surrounding community. Because grandfathered venues are not concentrated into special districts or isolated from incompatible neighbors, the Police Department must strain to devote scarce resources to policing them. Often the community suffers.
DeKalb is not seeking to suppress the hospitality industry, and the operations of most businesses that serve alcohol will not be affected. Instead, the effect of the rollback will be to level the playing field for all such businesses, protect communities and conserve public safety resources. Eight years of “grandfathered” Late Night Establishments open much later than in surrounding jurisdictions has not worked for DeKalb. The unanimously approved rollback will protect communities and allow public resources to be devoted to other more important priorities.