The liquor license of Sunset Overlook in Columbia is under review, but not by the city’s liquor commissioner, Mayor Kevin Hutchinson.
The Columbia City Council on Nov. 4 voted to retain and employ attorney Van-Lear P. Eckert as its administrative law judge to serve as arbiter in the matter of Sunset Overlook.
Several citizens near the Sunset Overlook establishment, located at 11604 Bluff Road, have requested that the “local liquor control commission set for hearing and revoke the liquor license of Sunset Overlook, LLC,” according to a recent complaint filed with the city.
Residents near Sunset Overlook have registered several grievances since its opening in June 2018.
Natalie Lorenz, attorney for the complainants, said “much of the disturbance to my clients occurs when the customers of Sunset Overlook have been drinking or have been over-served alcohol” as one of the reasons for seeking revocation of the liquor license.
The issue was heard in a recent liquor control hearing, but it was deemed a “mistrial” due to several potential conflicts of interest concerning the City of Columbia, Hutchinson and Sunset Overlook co-owner Peter Ingold.
Lorenz raised the issue of the city’s impartiality, citing a revolving loan issued to Sunset Overlook and authorized by the city council as part of the city’s Community Development Assistance Program.
Lorenz also brought up the fact Ingold was appointed June 3 to the Columbia Plan Commission – an advisory board for Columbia City Council – despite complaints from her clients.
While plan committee members must be approved by the city council, the mayor appoints nominees.
Furthermore, as mayor, Hutchinson is the liquor commissioner of Columbia’s alcohol retailers, adding to the perceived conflict of interest and the reason for installing Eckert as administrative law judge.
Columbia City Administrator Douglas Brimm explained that “Mr. Eckert will serve as an independent hearing officer in a case filed with the city alleging a violation of the city’s liquor code. Mr. Eckert will hear both sides of the case and render a decision based on the city code.”
The recently filed complaint cited a number of liquor code violations in addition to previous complaints.
The first alleged violation cited is a lack of Beverage Alcohol Sellers and Servers Education Training for Sunset Overlook employees.
Employees who serve alcohol are required to complete BASSET training within 120 days of employment, something the complaint alleges employees at Sunset Overlook have not done.
The second alleged violation involves Sunset Overlook’s zoning and liquor license application.
The motion cites that Sunset Overlook applied for a business license as a “bar-restaurant” but was granted a license to operate only as a “restaurant,” which prohibits the business from providing patrons alcohol without customers also purchasing food.
The complaint alleges a “vast majority of Sunset Overlook’s retail sales are for alcoholic beverages,” making the business in operation as a “lounge, tavern or pub,” which are not allowed in C-1 business zones.
Also cited are violations involving patrons eating and drinking outside and the playing of music, live or otherwise, outside of the Sunset Overlook building.
Both actions violate city zoning codes.
“Sunset Overlook has flagrantly ignored the zoning regulations and continued to violate the law and engage in highly disruptive behavior,” including reports of shouting, cursing, obscene gestures and outside urination, Lorenz said.
Eckert will now review the facts of the case and determine whether grounds exist to revoke Sunset Overlook’s liquor license.
Terry Bruckert, attorney for the City of Columbia, said Eckert will contact the city to set a date for a new hearing when he is finished reviewing all information.
The complainants also sued Sunset Overlook earlier this year for alleged ordinance violations concerning the business’s zoning.
The owners of Sunset Overlook are currently appealing court decisions from Aug. 14 and Aug. 21 in favor of the complainants.
Oral arguments in this appeal are expected to be heard Dec. 10.