By John Earl
Surf City Voice
Build it and they will come, the saying goes.
Likewise, a little more than two decades ago, Huntington Beach started redeveloping its blighted downtown area—linked economically as well as geographically to the beach and pier on the other side of Pacific Coast Highway—into a mall-style “village” that offers shops, hotels, and so far over 30 liquor serving restaurants and bars, all part of the city’s plan to market itself as a tourist destination.
From an economic perspective the plan has worked well. Over 11 million tourists come to the city each year; and two years ago the city collected a peak of about $7 million in hotel/bed taxes, most of it from the downtown area, Councilmember Keith Bohr pointed out at a recent city council meeting.
But encouraging tourism and alcohol consumption in a small area with a high concentration of liquor serving establishments has also created an alcohol dependent downtown with all the expected symptoms. Based on population, Huntington Beach has the 3rd highest DUI rate of any California city and is ranked 7th in the state, regardless of population, in drunk driver collisions, according to a report released by the Huntington Beach Police Department last July.
In 2009, according to the report, there were 274 alcohol related collisions in the city and 95 collisions occurred in 2010 between January and May. For the same time periods, respectively, there were 1,687 and 632 DUI arrests.
Death goes with the city’s high DUI rate. Last year the city had nine traffic fatalities, five of which were related to drunk driving, Chief of Police Kenneth Small told the council at its Jan. 18 meeting. “Drunk driving is clearly the most significant public safety problem we have in Huntington Beach,” he said.
Comparisons to other Orange County cities show how disproportionate the city’s alcohol problem is and how it relates to the downtown restaurant/bar scene. Irvine, for example, which has a slightly higher population than Huntington Beach (217,000 vs. 202,000), and despite being home to a large university, made 709 DUI arrests in 2008 compared with 1,729 DUI arrests in Huntington Beach. Anaheim (pop. 353,000) made 862 DUI arrests.
Anaheim and Irvine do not have highly concentrated downtown bar scenes; Fullerton, however, with a much lower population (137,000), also has a high number of downtown liquor serving establishments, according to the report, and made 1,188 DUI arrests in 2008—similar to the DUI arrest rate in Huntington Beach.
The downtown’s ongoing problem with drunks prompted the Huntington Beach Planning Commission on Jan. 25 to turn down a request by Bomburger, a downtown Main Street hamburger bar, to serve beer and wine. Bomburger’s owners wanted to sell the alcoholic beverages from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and to continue to serve food until 2 a.m. The city’s economic development staff recommended allowing beer and wine until 10 p.m. but in return requiring Bomburger to close at 12 midnight.
That condition is consistent with an applicable city resolution passed last year, Small told the council, that requires new bars and liquor serving restaurants to close at midnight and establishes other permit requirements and restrictions, including education for business owners and increased fines for violators.
The role of the city’s planning commission is to ensure that proposed projects conform to applicable laws and with policies set by the City Council. By a 4-3 majority (Peterson, Sheir-Burnett, Ryan voted no) the commission concluded that granting staff’s recommended action would be “detrimental to the general welfare,” harm surrounding property values and create “adverse noise or safety impacts.” And granting the applicant’s requested action to allow the restaurant to stay open until 2 a.m., even when ending alcohol sales two hours earlier than normal, would violate the city’s resolution, the commission ruled.
Since the staff’s recommended action—alcohol sales until 10 p.m. and closing time at 12 a.m.—was well within the intent of the city’s resolution, its denial may reflect the dream of a “new revitalized Downtown that does not depend on alcohol and a late night bar scene for its survival,” as some local activists call for, more than detached legal observation.
That dream—which implies a downtown residential sector comfortably detached from its economic base while enjoying the (tax) fruits of that base—goes against 2 ½ decades of downtown redevelopment history and contradicts the city’s de facto policy of boundless economic growth—based on boundless borrowing and corporate giveaways—that drives city planners and past city councils.
In any case, if the permit denial is appealed (Feb. 4 is the deadline), the final ruling will be up to the City Council which can make or modify policy however it chooses. Despite the public’s concerns about drunk driving, history indicates that the council will give more priority to downtown business owners and to ensuring more tourist-based tax revenues than to alternatives that might put its priorities at risk.
Police Vs. DUI
The HBPD has its own strategies to prevent drunk driving, including aggressive collection of blood samples from DUI suspects, a high school outreach program, training for alcohol servers, DUI checkpoints, saturation patrols, a specially trained team devoted exclusively to catching DUI offenders, arrest tracking, a warrant tracking detail aimed at DUI suspects who miss court dates, and helicopter patrolling which resulted in the arrests of 71 alcohol impaired drivers in 2009, according to Chief Small.
But drunk drivers still have the advantage in downtown Huntington Beach, based on the results a sting operation conducted by the HBPD and described in its DUI report. In that instance, 12 plain clothed officers waited covertly outside of the exit to the downtown parking structure to spot drunk drivers on their way out.
The plan was to call other officers to take the DUI suspects off the streets after they were spotted. But within 10-15 minutes of the 2 a.m. closing time for downtown bars the 12 officers were so overwhelmed with drunk drivers that they had to let many of them drive out of the parking structure without being arrested.
“This is but one example of an event that leads us to believe there are significant numbers of undetected DUI drivers each day in Huntington Beach,” the report warned.
The report made several new recommendations, including posting the names of DUI suspects on the Internet on a regular website, both as a deterrent and a tool that might alert the public to call police when they see DUI suspects driving with suspended or revoked licenses. In November, Councilmember Devin Dwyer upgraded that idea with his proposal that all DUI suspects be featured, with photo, on the HBPD Facebook page in order to use “shame” as a deterrent and as a safety alert.
Police departments are already required by state law to publish a log of arrests they have made and those logs are available at police stations or online. But Dwyer’s proposal added a new dimension to public disclosure due to Facebook’s widespread popularity (the HBPD Facebook page received 120,000 hits in November, Small said), coupled with the public’s concerns about protecting the presumption of innocence—the foundation of the American legal system.
After intense media scrutiny nationwide, Dwyer modified his proposal to include only “habitual drunk drivers,” meaning “individuals who have been arrested for drunk driving multiple times.” Dwyer noted that DUI suspects often continue to drive after their licenses have been suspended or revoked.
When the Facebook proposal came before the council on Jan. 18, Chief Small explained that, although he could have acted independently, he was waiting for council direction before posting DUI suspects on the department’s Facebook page.
The problem, he explained, is in defining the “habitual” drunk driver. “You have to look at the facts of each situation and answer this question: would…making this available to the public potentially increase public safety in Huntington Beach? If that answer to that question is yes, then we think Facebook may be a good mechanism for us to post that information.”
But Bohr wanted to direct the police not to post DUI suspects—habitual or not—on Facebook. Pointing out the city’s “very purposeful focused effort” over the past 25 years to attract tourists to the downtown area through redevelopment, events, and marketing, he said the “well meaning” proposal wouldn’t work as a deterrent and could harm the city’s tourist trade.
“The super majority of people that come to Huntington Beach that are of drinking age come here to recreate, eat and drink responsibly, and do so,” Bohr said. But they could get the idea that Surf City is a “Footlose kind of town [where] you’re not allowed to dance” and then take their money elsewhere if the Facebook plan is enacted.
Councilmembers Connie Boardman and Joe Shaw also believed that the proposal wouldn’t work and feared that enacting it could cause severe emotional harm to the families, particularly the children, of the DUI suspects. Facebook savvy students will find the posts and republish them on their own Facebook pages, Boardman said. “What it will do is humiliate their parents and terribly embarrass their children,” she warned. “Children of alcoholics live in a private hell as it is and I don’t want this city to make it any worse for them.”
According to the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism, however, it is “binge drinkers,” also referred to as social drinkers, not alcoholics, who cause 80 percent of “impaired driving events.” Over half of the approximately 79,000 alcohol related deaths each year in the United States are caused by binge drinkers, according to the Institute. It is estimated that only about 20 percent of all binge drinkers are alcoholics.
The Center for Disease Control defines binge drinking as having a blood alcohol concentration level of 0.08 percent or higher from a single occasion, usually from four or more drinks for a woman and five drinks or more for a man—an occasion lasts from 2 – 5 hours.
Considering the party-hardy reputation of downtown Huntington Beach, where activities like mechanical bull riding and watching extreme fighting on wide-screen television go hand in hand with being drunk, it might be prudent to ask if being exposed as a binge drinker would be seen by some as a badge of honor rather than a terrible shame.
But Boardman’s concern for humiliated families and, equally so, Dwyer’s focus on habitual drivers, as well as Bohr’s desire to protect the city’s bottom line, are all fraught with potential logical and ethical contradictions, some of which were addressed by Councilmember Don Hansen.
“Habitual drunk driving, which could change the lives of individuals and create havoc in families—we can’t go there,” Hansen said, responding to Boardman’s argument. “But if you have the unfortunate experience of being the child of a sexual predator or the child of a thief…that line is okay” he added, referring to the fact that other types of crime suspects are posted on the HBPD Facebook page without public protest.
Blocking the DUI profiles from Facebook in order to protect the city’s tourist trade might send the message that the city tolerates drunk driving, Hansen warned.
“I’m comfortable for [the city] being a destination resort community that has low tolerances for habitual drunk drivers,” he said. “That’s a rep that I can live with amongst the national tourism scene.”
Dwyer’s proposal was rejected, however, and by a 4-3 vote (Dwyer, Harper and Hanson voted no) the council directed Chief Small not to post DUI suspects on Facebook.
Finally, despite the best efforts of the Huntington Beach Police Department, the city may never have the low tolerance reputation that Hansen seeks for it as long as its planners and elected officials continue to maintain and build more of the downtown booze dispensers that many tourists come to get drunk in.