Senator Wiener Introduces Legislation to Modernize Liquor Licensing

February 11, 2022

SACRAMENTO - Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) introduced Senate Bill 980 to modernize liquor licensing. SB 980 makes it easier for small businesses to fill vacant storefronts by simplifying several elements of the liquor license application process. California’s small businesses often face significant challenges in navigating the liquor application process; these barriers make it difficult for entrepreneurs to open, adapt, relocate, and expand their operations. Cities and towns across the state are struggling to fill vacant storefronts, particularly as our economy still recovers from the impacts of COVID-19. To fill these vacancies, we must cut red tape and make it easier for small businesses to get their operations approved and up and running. 

SB 980 is sponsored by the City and County of San Francisco.

“Restaurants and bars are key to California’s economy and neighborhood vibrancy. We need to do everything in our power to support their recovery,” said Senator Wiener. “California’s difficult liquor licensing rules make it harder to get businesses up and running and to fill vacant storefronts. SB 980 implements commonsense reforms to support these small businesses.”

"In San Francisco we have been working hard to remove barriers and fees for our small businesses, and reforming our outdated and overly bureaucratic alcohol licensing laws will make a real difference for those trying to open a restaurant or bar as our city recovers," said San Francisco Mayor London N. Breed. "Filling our empty storefronts and creating good local jobs starts with helping our small businesses to open, operate and thrive. SB 980 will help address a number of these challenges."

SB 980 addresses several issues that delay and make it harder to start a small hospitality business and that micromanage how cities make business permitting decisions:

Under existing state law, applicants for a new liquor license must pay to mail a written notice to every resident within 500 feet of the premises, even if cities do not require or want this written notification. This is an expensive state-mandated process that can cost small businesses thousands of dollars or more. SB 980 grants cities local authority to decide the extent to which neighborhood notification is required to align with other local permit streamlining efforts. Cities will have complete authority to require whatever level of notification they want. SB 980 simply stops the state from micromanaging what kind of notification is required in nearly 500 California cities.

Under existing law, if a permit applicant withdraws an application after an objection, in order to address it, that applicant cannot submit a new application at that location  for another year. SB 980 eliminates this requirement, so that applicants can address any issues without being punished by a one year delay in opening.

Under existing law, ABC can deny a liquor license based solely on the business being located near a church, hospital, school, public playground, or nonprofit youth center — which can cover the lion’s share of a city. SB 980 limits this basis for denial to off-sale retail licenses (liquor stores) and provides that it does not apply to on-sale permits (restaurants and bars). The bill also clarifies that ABC may not apply a presumption against locating liquor licenses near residences, particularly given that in urban, mixed use areas, bars and restaurants are inherently located near residences. Cities will still have the ability, under local zoning, to determine where bars and restaurants can and cannot be located, and SB 980 does not take away that local control. ABC will still retain the ability to evaluate every license application on its merits and deny applications where appropriate. SB 980 simply limits ABC’s ability to make those decisions for cities.

Under existing law, some new businesses facing protests  may receive an interim operating permit while their liquor license application is under review. However, under this permit, businesses may only purchase  beer, wine, or distilled spirits from distributors in cash or check. SB 980 expands access to interim permits for long-delayed license applicants, enables interim permit holders to purchase alcohol on credit, and requires a protestor to confirm their continued interest in protesting an application where there has been a substantial delay before a hearing.

Simplifying this process will help fill vacant storefronts and make it easier for businesses to operate in California. Hospitality businesses are struggling massively because of COVID-19, and we need to make it simpler to run a small business in California.