City Council is preparing to change how businesses selling alcohol obtain permits in an effort to crack down on bad operators in a highly unusual joint meeting with City Planning Commission.
Significant public pressure is mounting to address nightlife crime after several highly publicized shootings. Deputy City Attorney Adam Melita said these events were the “tipping point” for this action.
- Nightlife activity does not seem to drive the bulk of shootings in Downtown Norfolk.1
- Downtown Norfolk does not seem to have a disproportionate crime level to its population.2
- Crime, particularly murders by gun, has increased nationwide over the past few years, especially in the South.3
- Other major cities have similar violence problems with vastly different rules concerning nightlife establishments.3
- A few gun shops sell the vast majority of weapons used in these violent crimes.4
In response, City Council expects to bring back a set of 2018 rules that require any establishment wishing to serve alcohol to go through the Conditional Use Permit (CUP) process.
- Currently, restaurants may serve alcohol (with an ABC license) until midnight without special approval from City Council.
- All restaurants or nightlife establishments must get a CUP to serve alcohol past midnight. Adding entertainment of any kind (even a poetry reading, for example) for any operating hours must be explicitly included while applying a CUP.
- Under the proposed changes, any restaurant, bar, or nightclub wanting to serve alcohol will need to get a CUP.
- The proposed changes include changes to the definition of “entertainment.” Silent discos, remote DJs, and any “promoted event” will fall under the new definitions. While we don’t have the full text of the change (see The Process below), staff described this at a City Planning Commission meeting.
- The definition is expected to include any promoted event and any music above conversation volume. Having any kind of trivia night, karaoke night, paint event, panel discussion, theme night, networking event, and more would now require this extra level of permitting.
- Additionally, the proposed changes would include a two-year default expiration on any new CUP for nightclubs or restaurants with live entertainment.
- Getting a CUP requires a Civic League/ Community letter of approval, a staff review, a vote from the City Planning Commission, and a vote from City Council. This process typically takes at least two months, based on the schedule of meetings.
- City Council can revoke a CUP for broadly “fail[ing] to comply with the conditions established by the permit.”
The cumulative effect is expected to allow City Council to stop alcohol sales at any establishment, effectively dealing a death blow to bars and nightlife businesses.
Typically, any similar city code change is presented to the City Planning Commission (CPC) at a regular meeting, voted on at the next City Planning Commission Public Hearing, and voted on by City Council. Under normal circumstances, the CPC regular meeting would fall on the second Thursday of the month, the CPC Public Hearing on the third Thursday of the month, and then City Council would vote- at the earliest -on the second Tuesday after that. That’s three public agendas and recorded meetings over a month.
- This change was just introduced to CPC formally on Thursday, September 8th; however, it was not included on the digitally distributed agendas. The staff passed out paper copies of the ordinance change to CPC members. Rarely are agenda items discussed that are not on the digitally provided agendas.
- The joint public meeting seemed to be formally introduced to CPC at this same meeting, although some members knew prior.
- The joint meeting is scheduled for September 13th, just five days later.
- City officials said there would be no public presentation on the change at this meeting before it is voted on. It’s currently the first item on the voting agenda: PH-1. The language of the change on City Council’s docket does not make the changes immediately clear.
- The September 13th CPC meeting is still not on the City of Norfolk’s public meeting calendar.
- City Planning Commission will vote on the changes, and assuming it passes, City Council will immediately vote on it.
The City of Norfolk is already working to revoke zoning certificates without action by City Council. Culture had its zoning certificate revoked, and Slowdive Gallery’s5 routine renewal is being slow-walked and put under deep scrutiny. Tuesday’s City Council meeting also features an agenda item revoking Legacy Nightclub’s CUP. Several other business owners we spoke to, who wished to remain unnamed, say they’ve been inspected more aggressively by city officials in recent weeks.
If you want to speak to City Council on this issue, you have to register to speak on Monday, September 12th, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and referencing PH-1.
Notes and Sources.
113News recently compiled all known shootings with injuries that happened in the downtown area. Only two of the seven incidents in 2022 are clearly connected to nightlife activities. Two additional did happen late at night, and a third involved shots into the window of Grace O’Malley’s, but it’s unclear if the shooters had been served downtown, interacted with any business there, or were connected in any way.
2We analyzed publicly available crime data in CrimeMapping, looking at assaults, homicides, and weapons charges. There appears to be little to no correlation in the data between the presence of nightlife businesses and these crimes. Downtown showed as much crime as areas of the city with little nightlife, some areas with no known nightlife establishments showed more violent crime than Downtown, and other areas with concentrations of nightlife businesses showed substantially less crime than Downtown.
3It is true that murder specifically has been trending upward in the city over the past few years. However, those increases are being seen across the region, across the state, and across the country. The trend is attributed to socio-economic pressure, desocialization from the pandemic, and access to weapons.
4In 2020, Bob’s Gun Shop and Superior Pawn stores sold more guns recovered by Norfolk PD than any other gun shops – by a long shot. Almost half of guns recovered in a crime were bought less than two years ago, and a staggering 20% were bought less than 3 months before the crime. The shops are even selling weapons that end up being trafficked many states over.
Paul Stetson Rice
Paul is the creator of NFKVA.com. He was born and raised in Norfolk, graduated from Virginia Tech, and narrowly avoided law school. Chat with him about economics, entrepreneurship, hip-hop, and hiking. When he's not working on five different projects, you'll catch him sharing a beer with friends at a local brewery.