WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Walk down Front Street on any given day and there’s likely a large crowd enjoying a beverage outside of Slainte Irish Pub in Downtown Wilmington.
“It’s just a fun atmosphere, nice and breezy. I’ve always had a really good time here,” said Eric Biebel who regularly visits the pub.
But that outside fun with beverage in hand came to a screeching halt on March 14 when Wilmington police told bar owners they were in violation of a city ordinance.
“It was really surprising and shocking as the timing was two days prior to St. Patrick’s Day, and here we are, an Irish pub,” said Slainte owner Misha Sobol.
The city ordinance that the owners were reportedly violating was city code 6-12 which reads: "Except as otherwise specifically permitted by the city council, it shall be unlawful for: Any person to consume a malt beverage or unfortified wine on any public street, road, highway, sidewalk, right-of-way, alley, facility, or other property owned or occupied by the city.”
According to Wilmington police, if a patron of a bar is found with alcohol outside of the establishment, a $250 fine or a citation can be levied.
Sobol admits he is in violation of the open container law but is astonished that the ordinance is now being enforced after 12 years in business.
“There is a flip side of this coin. I understand if you are walking the streets, that’s a problem but if you are next to an establishment that serves wine and beer and cocktails, why can’t we do it?” Sobol questioned.
He now has signs in his pub window that state “to our esteemed loyal customers, thank you for your patronage for the past 12 years, due to new and questionable city regulations, the City of Wilmington and WPD are no longer allowing us to enjoy beverages outside or under the awning.”
Customers WECT talked to on Wednesday expressed their disappointment.
“Being outside is like free advertisement to the city of Wilmington that the town is thriving. When people see fun, they want to have fun,” said Adam Batterseamolto, a Slainte regular.
Sobol claims he received a permit from the state back in 2007 that allows alcohol consumption under his awning which he’s always had marked off with black tape. He told police he is grandfathered in, but the WPD disagrees.
Lt. Stephanie Boucher, the head of the WPD’s Downtown Task Force, said in an email to city leaders on Friday, March 15 that “unless [Sobol] can provide a valid permit that allows alcohol consumption on the city street, there should not be any open containers of alcohol. Please record any patrons on the sidewalk drinking and ask them to step inside or on their property.”
Sobol believes he is being singled out, and points out other restaurants and bars are also in violation but have not been visited by police.
“The ordinance is so outdated. If you try to enforce it right now, none of the restaurants, not just bars, wouldn’t have seating outside because all the restaurants prohibit them to be outside,” Sobol explained. "The ordinance says you have to have barricades, entrances and exits. So its outdated and it needs to be a new ordinance.
Sobol is, in fact, right. His neighbor next door, Front Street Brewery, for example, does serve alcohol and patrons can sit outside but they are allowed to do so because they also serve food and have a sidewalk cafe permit. But, according to the ordinance, they do not have a barricade up which would be in violation.
That ordinance states “the portion of the sidewalk cafe where alcohol is or may be served shall be enclosed by clearly visible barricades and shall not have more than two points of ingress and egress.”
We brought that to the attention of WPD Wednesday and asked why they can enforce one ordinance but not all of which are being violated.
Jennifer Dandron, spokeswoman for the police department, said the Downtown Task Force is currently cracking down, and making a list of current restaurants and bars that are in violation.
“WPD is currently working closely with Code Enforcement and Zoning to ensure all city ordinances, including compliance with permits, are followed,” Dandron said. “The Wilmington Police Department is enforcing a long standing law prohibiting the consumption and possession of alcohol in public spaces, including on sidewalks and public right of ways. For patrons to drink alcohol outside of a bar or restaurant, they must be on private property or the establishment must have a sidewalk café permit. Our priority is safety, which is why we are working diligently with the Downtown community to ensure the laws are clear and are being followed.”
For now, Sobol says he will abide by the law but he and his business partner have hired an attorney and hopes that city council members will take a look at what he feels is an outdated policy.
“We all change in 12 years, downtown has changed. Downtown is now vibrant, and people want to come where they see people happy. It’s what brings people around. I hope that city council takes a second look and we can all work together,” Sobol said.