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Minneapolis moving toward eliminating ‘buffer zone’ between neighborhood bars and churches

Minneapolis has a zoning history of protecting its churches from drunks.

Minneapolis has a zoning history of protecting its churches from drunks. Except downtown, where churchgoers and drinkers have been allowed to mingle at their mutual risk for decades.

But out in the neighborhoods, there’s a buffer zone that prevents booze from being sold within 300 feet of a church or other religious institution unless the seller is making at least 70 percent of its money from the sale of food.

The rule has been blamed for some of the empty storefronts that would make great locations for restaurants. 

The city is listening to some of those complaints, and on Monday, a City Council committee approved changes in the rule (PDF).

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The new wording would eliminate the 300-foot buffer and reduce financial requirements, allowing holders of a liquor license to make only 60 percent of their money from food. The changes also exempt breweries from the 300-foot rule but do require them to operate the same hours as liquor stores and be closed on Sunday.

“Is that [the 70-percent food rule] too large of a hill to climb for businesses?” asked Council Member Diane Hofstede.

“It’s always a struggle,” replied Grant Wilson, the city’s director of business licensing. 

It would have been a pretty dull hearing but a perfect example of moving alcohol across the street from a church was there to plead his case.

Rob Miller, owner of Dangerous Man Brewing Co., would like to sell his craft beer in Northeast Minneapolis, across the street from Saints Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church.  He promises 25 parking spots, limited hours of operation and a tastefully done sign produced by a local artist. 

“This is a beer joint,” said one opponent of the change, Patricia Hillmeyer, who is from the church. She talked about the tradition of respect between liquor businesses and churches in Northeast and argued to keep the current language, saying, “We have lived very well with the current ordinance.”

“We’re really not talking about a seedy bar,” said Jason Avey, who sells craft beers from his business in St. Louis Park.   He said craft beer fans are no longer a small group and are willing to travel for a new taste opportunity. “Beer tourism is a reality.”

“The spot they’ve picked out is not the right one,” said Duane Gagnon, chairman of the parish council. “It doesn’t belong across from a church.”

Dan McElroy, president of Hospitality Minnesota, said he polled his membership on the 300-foot restriction and found they favored a “strong case-by-case review,” as opposed to an across-the-board restriction.

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Council Member Gary Schiff, who proposed elimination of the 300-foot rule, said, “We’re making it difficult” for people to make a living or rent out their empty storefronts. 

“It works in my ward now” without the rule, said Council Member Lisa Goodman, who represents 30,000 people who live downtown.  And more important, “no one has been hit by lightning.”

Elimination of the restriction was approved on a voice vote by the Regulatory, Energy and Environment Committee with small but audible dissent.

Out in the hall, a beaming Miller said he is still six to eight months away from opening his brewery but the rule had been his only obstacle.

He’s waiting to see if the full City Council approves the changes before signing a lease on the space, and he still must apply for his liquor licenses.