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Bill would allow bars near schools, churches in business zones

The neon sign announcing that downtown City High School, 48 E. Pennington St., is open, lends it a commercial air.

The neon sign announcing that downtown City High School, 48 E. Pennington St., is open, lends it a commercial air.

A proposal working its way through the Legislature addresses a top priority for Glenn Lyons since he took charge of the Downtown Tucson Partnership a little more than a year ago.

State Rep. Michele Reagan, a Scottsdale Republican, introduced legislation to reduce the 300-foot distance that must separate a school from a bar or lounge.

Upon his arrival in Tucson in February 2008, Lyons drew 300-foot circles around the downtown charter schools and found there was hardly anywhere a new bar liquor license could be issued. Bars that were in place before schools arrived downtown can operate because they are grandfathered in.

“The rules had been written before charter schools started,” Lyons said. “We think a change in the rules will be very beneficial.”

Reagan said the inspiration for her bill, HB 2302, stemmed from downtown Tucson’s dilemma. Her legislation would allow cities to designate areas where businesses with liquor licenses may be within 100 feet of churches, schools and fenced playgrounds.

“It’s kind of an arbitrary number and it probably made sense or worked OK once upon a time,” said Reagan, chairwoman of the House Commerce Committee. “But now that you have charter schools and churches in strip malls, there are a lot of things that can’t go into a strip mall now if they’re within that 300 feet.”

The bill also would allow schools and churches to waive their right to a buffer zone against such businesses.

The measure received preliminary approval this week from the House, setting up a final vote that would sent it to the Senate.

Teresa Bommarito, planner for the Downtown Tucson Partnership, said the rule has restricted development in an area that needs it. About five months ago, a proposed upscale lounge offering live music backed away when learning about the 300-foot rule and has not had contact since with the partnership.

“It just deters people from the opportunities here, and all we want to do is make downtown work for everyone,” she said. “The businesses that are looking to relocate downtown are needed and desired by pretty much everyone.”

Kathy Senseman, lobbyist with the Policy Development Group in Phoenix, said the bill isn’t a blanket for the whole state but would allow cities to designate areas that have mixed-use development as central business districts. Within those identified districts liquor-licensed businesses, churches and schools could be within 100 feet of each other.

“It makes it difficult to bring in the higher-end restaurants, things you’d like to bring in to dress up your downtown a little bit when you’ve got a charter school literally smack-dab in the middle of it,” she said.

Deborah Sheasby, legal counsel for the Center for Arizona Policy, a conservative think tank, said that some churches have faced discrimination in trying to relocate to commercial areas because cities and developers didn’t want to restrict options for other businesses.

“They shouldn’t be penalized by the city actions and zoning and land use just because they qualify for the benefit of the buffer zone under state law,” Sheasby said.

The bill would prohibit cities from denying a land-use permit to a church or school solely because of the buffer-zone restriction. The bill doesn’t change the licensing requirements, and it requires cities to hold an open meeting to designate a central business district. Cities also would have to notify churches or schools within the proposed district about the meeting 14 days in advance.

“We are just trying to make sure that churches are not being discriminated against just because they are churches,” Sheasby said.

Tucson Citizen downtown reporter Teya Vitu contributed to this article.

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