In beer battle with Clark’s Market, Aspen liquor store alleges rubber-stamp policy by city
Does the city’s liquor board blindly approve applications for licenses to sell booze?
Aspen Wine & Spirits thinks so and is arguing the alleged de facto policy hurts competing businesses.
On Tuesday, that argument was made to a judge who will decide whether the municipal government should remain a defendant in the liquor store’s lawsuit protesting the sale of full-strength beer at Clark’s Market, a neighbor of Aspen Wine & Spirits.
“We believe that the city has adopted a policy of approving all liquor licenses for any individuals that seem to be qualified, regardless of whether or not they have demonstrated need,” said Richard Neiley Jr., counsel for Aspen Wine & Spirits, during a case-management teleconference before Pitkin County District Judge Chris Seldin.
Such a rubber-stamp policy violates Colorado law that says before granting a liquor license, a licensing authority must consider “the reasonable requirements of the neighborhood or the desires of the adult inhabitants,” Neiley Jr. is arguing.
Aspen Wine & Spirits wants Clark’s Market to stop selling full-strength beer, which it has been doing since Jan. 1. That’s when a Colorado law rolled out allowing existing grocers and convenience stores to sell the same-strength beer offered by liquor stores.
Aspen Wine & Spirits and Clark’s Market are separated by a hallway; both are located at the shopping complex at North Mill and Puppy Smith streets.
The liquor store sued the supermarket and city in September, after the Local Licensing Authority — a city board of volunteers who review applications to sell liquor and marijuana — in August approved an application from Clark’s to sell full-strength suds once the new law took hold.
The suit, which has been amended multiple times, is seeking three avenues of relief.
The first claim contends that because the LLA violated the law by blessing Clark’s’ liquor license application by not weighing the neighborhood needs, a judge should void the license.
The second claim seeks a judgment determining that the city has an unlawful policy of approving all liquor license applications, and that Clark’s failed to demonstrate to the LLA that its neighborhood’s desires were met.
The third claim, for breach of contract, alleges that Clark’s Market had a lease agreement from January 2000 giving Aspen Wine & Spirits exclusive rights to sell full-strength beer from the shopping complex.
The city and Clark’s, however, have argued that there was plenty of evidence showing the supermarket’s selling full-strength beer met the desires of the neighborhood, and it was presented to the LLA when it approved the license. The city also has said it doesn’t have a blanket policy to approve liquor licenses, while Clark’s maintains it did not breach any lease agreement with Aspen Wine & Spirits.
Neiley Jr. said statements from LLA chairman Bill Murphy, made the day Clark’s won its license, show there is such a policy. According to Neiley Jr., Murphy said “we’ve never in the past denied somebody a license because it’s been perceived that the desires of the neighborhood haven’t been met because we don’t know that.”
Another board member made similar remarks, Neiley Jr. said, “which indicates, I think fairly clearly, that the city has adopted a de facto policy approving liquor licenses for all qualified individuals.”
An attorney representing the city in the matter, D.J. Goldfarb, who was sitting in for lead attorney Josh Marks, countered that Murphy was commenting on his own behalf and not the city’s.
“His comments are not binding on the city,” Goldbarb said. “The city can act independently of what the chairman said.”
For now, the immediate question before Judge Seldin is whether the city will remain a defendant in the case; that could hinge on whether Aspen Wine & Spirits can demonstrate there’s a valid argument that the city has a rubber-stamp policy alleged by the liquor store.
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