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Mendocino County awash in alcohol

Published: Monday, April 8, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 7, 2013 at 4:21 p.m.

There's no obvious “ground zero” for alcohol sales or consumption in Ukiah, no skid row scene replete with liquor stores and run down bars. In fact, the landscape of this rural Mendocino County hub looks, for the most part, pretty dry.

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Children walk by at the Water Trough bar, and a convenience store advertising among other things, beer. A school is just south of the location and school children walk by the outlets on a daily basis.

(Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

And yet each convenience store, restaurant, pub, wine bar, gas station and pharmacy has led to a unique situation here: Mendocino County is drowning in alcohol.

The number of alcohol outlets per capita in Mendocino is more than twice that of the state, according to a public health impact assessment released to the public last week. There are currently 48 outlets per 10,000 residents, compared to 21 for the state.

With a total of 168 off-sale alcohol outlets, Mendocino's off-sales rate is 4.8 outlets per 2,500 residents, compared to 1.9 for the state. When compared to six other rural counties, including Lake, Mendocino County has the highest off-sale outlet density. Lake County has 3.6 off-sale outlets per 2,500 residents.

The impact assessment shows a correlation between the density of alcohol outlets and arrests for aggravated assault, drinking and driving and underage drinking.

“We're not claiming causation, but there is a link,” said Linda Helland, program manager for the Mendocino County Public Health Services prevention and planning unit.

“We know that when they make roads, people drive on them,” she said.

The health department conducted its health impact assessment between May 2010 and August 2010. The initial findings were shared with local officials in 2011 and led to the Ukiah planning commission prohibiting new off-sale alcohol outlets in the downtown area. Last year the Ukiah city council adopted the downtown prohibition as an amendment to the city code.

The county's high alcohol density has it running afoul with the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which sets guidelines for acceptable levels of outlets per population.

ABC rules state that the maximum number of outlets should not exceed one off-sale outlet per 2,500 inhabitants. The impact assessment found that, to be in compliance with ABC rules, Mendocino's 168 off-sale outlets would have to be reduced to 35.

ABC officials are required to refuse alcohol license applications in census tracts that have too many outlets, but applicants can get around the county's current moratorium if they obtain a letter of “Public Convenience or Necessity” from local officials, such as local law enforcement.

Helland said last week that such letters are too easily obtained, though the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office rejected that claim.

Back in 2006, educators at Grace Hudson Elementary School on Jefferson Lane and South State Street objected to a proposed alcohol vendor's license for a market and deli around the corner on South State Street. Though the license application was denied by the state ABC, it was appealed and ultimately approved by local officials.

“Once it was over, I just said, 'That's it, there's just no point in ever protesting,'” said Ruth Van Antwerp, a Grace Hudson teacher. “We held them off for well over a year. But we lost in the end and spent a bunch of money on attorneys.”

Antwerp said the market and deli is too close to the school and next door to a bar called The Water Trough, which has been there longer than the school.

She said the school was designed with an open campus, where local residents can use the fields and playground as if they were a park. She said there has been an increase in the number of young people drinking alcohol and using drugs on school grounds at night.

“Whatever kids can't do at home, they do it on school grounds after dark because it's an open campus,” Van Antwerp said.

Imram Naseem, the manager of the 101 Market & Deli and the owner's nephew, said the real problem is not the number of alcohol outlets but rather the lack of employment opportunities in the county.

“Everybody drinks beer, it's just like water over here,” Naseem said. “If you had a job in the morning, you wouldn't drink at night. You're going to be worried about having a hangover.”

Naseem said it's unfair to demonize the market because it sells a lot more than alcohol, including sandwiches, food and candy. “The principal of the school has lunch here,” he said.

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman objected to any claim that his agency was essentially enabling a loophole around ABC restrictions. Allman said that during the 11-year period between 2002 and 2012, the Sheriff's Office has written 20 letters of Public Convenience or Necessity.

That's “less than two a year,” he said, adding that six were license renewals for businesses that were re-opening after temporarily going out of businesses.

Allman said these letters are in no way the root cause of the alcohol outlet density figures calculated by the public health department.

What's more, he said that Mendocino County is home to a great many wineries and tasting rooms, and that “once those are taken into consideration, I don't think we're going to have any more convenience store beer outlets than any other county.”

Allman said his investigators work closely with local ABC officials and his office has aggressively targeted stores that sell alcohol to minors and adults who are intoxicated, as well as adults who buy beer for kids who hang around convenience stores.

But public health officials insist that alcohol is too readily available in Mendocino County.

“It can be cheaper to buy a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor than a bottle of water sometimes,” said Tina Tyler-O'Shea, program administrator of the public health department's prevention and planning unit.

Helland said the county's drinking culture and the availability of alcohol are having adverse effects on local youth. The state's latest Healthy Kids survey shows that alcohol abuse among Mendocino teenagers rises to alarming rates as they approach graduation.

In the seventh grade, 14 percent of students reported using alcohol in the 30 days prior to the survey, while 8 percent reported binge drinking. These figures are similar to overall figures for the state, where 13 percent reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days and 6 percent reported binge drinking.

However, by the time Mendocino students reach the 11th grade, 49 percent reported drinking alcohol and 35 said they binge drank, where binge drinking is defined as having five or more drinks per drinking session. Statewide, 33 percent reporting drinking in the past 30 days and 22 percent reported binge drinking.

Supervisor Dan Gjerde said the report is cause for concern.

“When health professionals say Mendocino County has twice the state average for alcohol take-away outlets and twice the state average for aggravated assaults, and they think the two are related, that's thought-provoking," Gjerde said in an email.

“If health professionals, local retailers and leaders in our criminal justice system bring forward suggestions, I think we should listen,” he said.

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