Community members, business owners and city leaders met Monday to discuss potential changes to the city's liquor license ordinance.

The gathered crowd heard proposals from the city's liquor committee, made up of members of the city commission, economic development and law enforcement, on proposed changes to the city's liquor license ordinance. The meeting was a follow up to the public hearing held in May, in which a potential change to the way liquor licenses are distributed was discussed.

That meeting garnered a lukewarm response from the assembled business owners, and Monday's meeting seemed to do little to change those feelings.

The major source of contention from May's public meeting was suggestion of moving to a fee-based system for distributing licenses, rather than the current method, which is based on population. According to Rachel Laqua, principal planner for the city, the number of licenses available is based on population numbers from 2014, showing Williston at 14,000 residents. She added that Williston's present population is estimated to be near 35,000 people.

The concern shown by licensees at May’s meeting, and reiterated again on Monday, was that allowing anyone to purchase a liquor license would cause current licenses to lose value, and that Williston would become overrun with bars, thus lowering the quality of life for its residents.

After researching how cities such as Minot, Dickinson, Bismarck and Fargo handle their licensing, the committee proposed two options. The first was to leave the ordinance as it stands, and expanding the types of licenses available, which the committee thought would create more complications in licensing, which in turn could potentially devalue existing licenses. The second option would be to simplify license types, remove the licensing cap, help retain value for existing licenses and move to a fee-based system for new licenses.

Moving to a fee-based system would allow anyone with the money to purchase a liquor license from the city for their establishment, which at the previous meeting business owners felt would devalue the licenses that they presently hold.

The committee's new proposal would help to retain the value of those licenses by allowing them to be transferred, whereas any new licenses purchased could not.

Several in attendance took to the podium to express their thoughts, expressing concern over waste management for new establishments, as well as the potential negative impact more bars could have on the community.

Raymond Melendez, Williston business owner and license holder, stated that he felt allowing more licenses would affect the quality of life in Williston by creating an increase in alcohol-related problems, as well taking away value from existing licenses.

"I'm deeply concerned on those two fronts," he said. "I would request that the committee do a thorough study, or hire someone to do a thorough study, to determine really what additional liquor licenses and beer licenses do to a city. I don't think that's going to enhance the quality of life for any citizen, or any potential citizen coming in to Williston."

Miranda Samuelson with underage drinking prevention program Partnerships For Success, expounded on Melendez's statement, commenting that Williston is a high-risk city for underage drinking. While most underage drinkers are not getting alcohol from establishments such as bars and liquor stores, she stated, the risk would increase with the addition of new liquor establishments.

"Our concern is that when you increase the density of alcohol, you increase that retail accessibility." she said.

Committee member and Williston Police Chief Dave Peterson addressed those concerns.

"We work diligently hand in hand in trying to keep alcohol out of minors hands in the city of Williston," he said. "We work hard to educate our liquor license holders, and we take that very, very seriously. We work hard with the advocates to keep alcohol out of the minors' hands and will continue to do so, no matter what happens in this forum."

Committee members spoke to those gathered and encouraged further dialogue between themselves and license holders. It was noted that there were no license holders on the committee, which prompted members Laqua, Mark Schneider and Tate Cymbaluk to issue an invitation for licensees to join and be part of the decision-making process.

Several appeared to take advantage of the offer, and the committee noted that their inclusion would helpful in garnering a favorable outcome for all involved. Schneider stated that the committee would likely return with changes and another public meeting before presenting the changes formally to the city commission for approval.


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