Reports of the midnight bar closing ordinance's death appear to have been at least somewhat exaggerated.
With opposition growing to a proposal requiring new businesses selling alcoholic beverages in the peninsula's entertainment district to close at midnight instead of 2 a.m., Charleston city leaders said earlier this week they will, instead, recommend a three-year moratorium on allowing new bars to open in the designated area.
On Wednesday, though, Tim Keane, the city's planning director, said the moratorium might not be that absolute. Depending on how it's worded, he said, it could allow new bars to open if they agreed to shut down by midnight, making it similar to the initial proposal that came under fire from the local food and beverage industry.
Interviewed Tuesday, Riley said he would push for a three-year moratorium on new bars around the Market, on King Street and along parts of Meeting and East Bay streets in the heart of the city's historic downtown. However, Riley made no mention of allowing new bars that agreed to close by midnight.
"I didn't differentiate," Riley said.
Councilman Dean Riegel, the only member to vote against the midnight closing ordinance on first reading May 27, said he's reluctant to support the latest version because it's not substantially different from the original proposal.
He also said city leaders appear confused about what they are trying to accomplish. Some of them think the problems with the city's expanding bar district, especially on upper King Street, are related to public safety. But other city officials think the proliferation of bars could prevent other kinds of businesses from opening there, leading to a lack of commercial and residential diversity.
Riegel also said some alternatives to an ordinance should be considered, including passing zoning rules that limit the number of bars in the entertainment district and soft closings, which means bars stop serving alcohol at a certain time but are allowed to remain open for a while as patrons drink non-alcoholic beverages. With soft closings, all of the patrons don't go out onto the street at the same time, he said.
He also suggested offering discount parking rates at city garages to bar customers so they don't park in residential neighborhoods.
Riley, Keane and Police Chief Greg Mullen in May proposed an ordinance creating an "entertainment district overlay zone," which includes the Market area and some areas along East Bay Street, all of King Street and much of Meeting Street. It would have restricted some business activity within the zone, including prohibiting new businesses from serving alcohol after midnight.
The ordinance also would have prohibited many businesses within it from operating between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m., including food stores, gas stations, restaurants, bars and other establishments that sell alcoholic beverages.
Council gave the ordinance initial approval, but must consider the matter two more times before it officially passes.
Many local restaurant and bar owners were outraged by the proposal, which they thought was unfair to their industry. And after a loud and sustained public outcry, city leaders decided to recommend the moratorium. Several of them earlier this week said they were waiting for a draft of the revised ordinance before commenting.
Keane said it likely will be at least two weeks before a draft is completed.
City Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson said city officials haven't changed the ordinance very much from its original version. She also chided them for not consulting council members on how the moratorium should be applied.
"This seems to be new packaging on an old problem," she said. "It would be nice if council was included in these things."
She thinks many council members will be resistant to this version, as well. "I don't think you're going to see council move on this as quickly as it did on the previous version," she said.
Councilman Bill Moody said he doesn't think the majority of council will vote in favor of the revised plan. "There would have to be a lot of explaining," he said.
He simply wants city officials to be clear with council about which problems they are trying to solve. Once that's clear, he said, it will be easier to come up with appropriate solutions.
Riley said the city will ask the Planning Commission at its Aug. 20 meeting to disregard the original plan and instead approve the revised plan.
The city's Planning Department will hold a public hearing on September 23.
Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.