SALT LAKE CITY -- A restaurant's request to serve beer created a deadlock among members of Utah's alcohol control authority, after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints elected to remain silent on the issue.
The vote was 2-2 between the known drinkers of the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission and the two non-drinkers. The remaining members of the seven-member commission were not present for Tuesday's vote.
La Frontera in St. George has been trying for months to get a beer license. Because it is located near an LDS chapel, the restaurant must obtain a "proximity variance." Under Utah liquor laws, if a restaurant is less than 600 feet from a community location like a church, school, park or library, it triggers higher hurdles. The community location gets to weigh in, there's public comment, and the restaurant has to show an "unmet need" for alcohol in the area to be granted a proximity variance.
But the LDS Church is not weighing in on requests from La Frontera or Even Stevens, a sandwich shop that wants to serve alcohol across the street from the faith's Tabernacle building in Logan. The DABC commission previously viewed silence as tacit approval, but reversed itself last month.
"If the church would approve it, we could have it," La Frontera manager Terry Montano told FOX 13 on Tuesday. "We wouldn't have to go through this."
The LDS Church has previously declined to comment on the variance requests, but has pointed to existing state law that triggers the heightened criteria if a community location does not give written consent.
From the DABC on "proximity variations:"
Even Stevens did not show up to Tuesday's DABC meeting and their license request was delayed another month. Montano showed commissioners a petition from customers asking for beer, and tried to make a case that her Mexican restaurant was filling an "unmet" need. DABC Commissioner Amanda Smith agreed with La Frontera, and voted to approve their beer license request. So did Commissioner Jeff Wright.
"I'm not sure I'm convinced," said DABC Commissioner Stephen Bateman.
Commission Chairman John Nielsen sided with Bateman and the vote failed on a 2-2 deadlock. Montano was told she could return next month to try to make her case again.
She left the meeting in tears.
"I don't know what else to do!" Montano cried outside.
Montano said she thought she had made a case for why a proximity variance should be granted. She said it would be difficult to move the restaurant, as they had signed a three-year lease.
"We have a lot of support, but, you know, they want beer," she said, describing customers walking out the door.
Nielsen told FOX 13 after the meeting he was sympathetic to La Frontera, but the law crafted by the legislature had these higher burdens. He said the LDS Church's silence does impact the deliberations.
"If we had some affirmative yay or nay, it would make our job, I think, a little easier," he said.
Earlier in the meeting, a restaurant had been granted a variance after a nearby Episcopal church said it didn't have a problem with alcohol being served there.
Montano said she did not know if she would try again at July's DABC commission meeting.
"It's frustrating," she said, wiping tears. "Our customers get frustrated with us and there isn't anything we can do. And we're losing customers because of this."