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St. Paul Eyes Beneficiary Regulatory Changes

St. Paul restaurants and brewpubs could be among the businesses benefiting from regulatory changes under review by city officials. A focus on Class N city licenses is just the latest in a series of business reforms sought by St. Paul City Council members, led by Ward Two Council Member Rebecca Noecker.

Noecker has already pushed through business-friendly regulatory revisions. One of those is to loosen restrictions for businesses wishing to put up sidewalk sandwich-board-style signs. That change was sought by restaurants and coffee shops wishing to promote daily specials without having to go through a sign permit process. Many businesses were found to be in violation.

Another big change she championed eliminated the minimum 300-foot distance between downtown establishments with liquor licenses and schools and places of worship. 

But the effort to possibly change some of the city’s most controversial licenses could be one of her most ambitious efforts. Noecker, who is joined in seeking changes by council members Jane Prince and Dai Thao, is looking at a six to eight-month period to get community input.

“A lot of these regulations have been on the books for a very long time, and we need to take a look at them to see what needs a refresh,” Noecker said. She and other council members cite changing technology, and other city regulatory changes, as driving the need to look at the Class “N” licenses.

Listening sessions began in June and will continue. The first one drew more than a dozen people from around St. Paul, who discussed ideas and concerns with Department of Safety and Inspections staff.

The Class N licenses affecting hospitality-related business are those regulating liquor sales, the ability to sell liquor outdoors (called an “extension of service”), temporary liquor licenses and patio and sidewalk café licenses for food and drink. Businesses that need a sound level variance for an outdoor music show, temporary and permanent entertainment licenses for music and dancing also have many hoops to jump through. The city issues about two dozen such licenses, which cover a wide range of businesses.

Noecker said city officials need to balance the desire for neighborhood input with that of helping small businesses succeed.

One example of a regulation that can stymie small businesses is a 45-day waiting period for an on-sale liquor license. It requires notification of adjacent neighborhoods, and a review by the district council in the businesses’ neighborhood. 

A district council can waive the 45-day waiting period at the business owner’s request. But if even one neighbor sends a letter of objection, the matter can be sent to a legislative hearing officer and create further delays, said Ross Haddow, a project manager with DSI.

“Can we look at shortening the time period, so that neighbors can have a say without long delays for businesses?” Haddow asked. Businesses are often ready to open their doors and pour patrons drinks with their meals, only to have last-minute objections come through the gate.

Other issues include: 

Outdoor service. Tom Forti, who owns the Iron Ranger restaurant and grocery store on Grand Avenue, has spent several months seeking approval to serve beer and wine on the patio. He’d like to serve the beverages until 10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday, and until 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. “It’s taken a long time to get the project done and get this through city process,” he said. He’s attended three meetings with neighbors and the district council Summit Hill Association before getting an approval on a split-voice vote. But the matter still went to a legislative hearing in early July because a few neighbors sent emails complaining about potential patio noise and patron behavior.

Temporary entertainment licenses. Bars and restaurants clamor for special events and the revenue outdoor music, food and liquor services can bring, but the current number of outdoor-event licenses is capped at three annually in the downtown area per event. Expanding the cap to 10 has been proposed. That would put the city in line with the state on such licenses.

Sidewalk cafés. Restaurants have to get both a sidewalk-obstruction permit from the Department of Public Works and then a separate sidewalk license from DSI. Requests have been made to streamline that process, while continuing to preserve adequate egress for pedestrians, especially those who use wheelchairs or walkers. 

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