Dog-and-pony show expected at Basalt liquor store hearing | AspenTimes.com

Dog-and-pony show expected at Basalt liquor store hearing

Basalt officials fear that a hearing over a hotly contested liquor license could turn ugly next month despite promises from the attorneys involved to behave.

The Town Council, which also acts as the town’s liquor licensing authority, debated for an hour last week how to proceed with a hearing for a proposed liquor store in the Willits subdivision. El Jebeverage, another liquor store in west Basalt, is fighting to get the Willits liquor store’s application denied.

The debate has already heated up with the exchange of letters and advance maneuvering. Three interested attorneys attended a hearing last week just to determine the rules for the real hearing.

“This seems to be turning into quite a dog-and-pony show,” said Mayor Rick Stevens.

The mayor quipped that the council wouldn’t tolerate any bickering if the issue involved development.

“If this was a land-use application we would just send you down the road right now,” Stevens said. “We could get away with murder.”

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Instead it’s a liquor license hearing dictated by an archaic state code. The procedures for the hearing are ill defined by the state, so town attorney Jody Edwards has stressed to the council that its hearing must be consistent with hearings on prior, less controversial liquor licenses.

That means the council must sit as a quasi-judicial authority and hear testimony from witnesses about why the liquor license should or shouldn’t be granted. Attorneys on both sides of the issue will be able to call and cross-examine witnesses, and members of the public will get their say.

The council decided last week to limit the presentation for attorneys on both sides to 20 minutes each. Attorney Mark Bender of Denver represents El Jebeverage and is allied with attorney Mick Ireland of Aspen, who represents Jim Valario, landlord of El Jebeverage. Representing the Willits liquor store is Lee Leavenworth of Glenwood Springs.

The attorneys agreed to turn in all written materials so the opposing lawyers could review them in a timely manner. They seemed to downplay the potential for bickering at the hearing, but Stevens wasn’t buying it. He said the “ordeal” will take a minimum of three hours “without breaking a sweat” because the attorneys will go to great lengths to paint their cases in the most favorable light.

“I’m just seeing the tip of the iceberg here,” Stevens predicted.

Money is at the root of the fight. El Jebeverage feels that the Willits liquor store would invade its space because it is so close. The store is collecting signatures from customers on a petition which says the new store shouldn’t be approved because there isn’t a neighborhood “need.”

The new store is also being opposed by El Jebel Liquors, located outside of Basalt in unincorporated Eagle County but less than a mile away from the other liquor stores. El Jebel Liquors owner Gloria Deschamp wrote in a letter to the council that the economic slump has already been tough on liquor stores. Adding competition will just make it tougher, she said.

A report by the town government shows liquor store revenues steadily climbed during the seven months of the year from 1999 through 2002. Year-to-date revenues fell for the first time in recent years in 2003, with a 5 percent decline.

So just how big of a pie are the liquor stores splitting? The town’s 2 percent sales tax raised $44,680 through July this month. That means their total revenues were about $2.25 million.

The hearing to determine if another liquor store should be allowed in Basalt was set for Monday, Sept. 22, at 6 p.m.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]

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