Neighborhood Intel

Who really runs your neighborhood nightlife? Why community boards can't ban bars

By Virginia K. Smith  | June 24, 2014 - 12:59PM

Whether your attitude toward your neighborhood's noisy nightlife is "quiet down" or "bring it on," you'll have to take into account your local community board, an advisory group of volunteers appointed by the borough president that represents the area's interests to local politicians. But can a board simply ban new drinking establishments, as Bushwick's ever-vocal Community Board 4 is trying to do with a campaign to "halt the influx" of new liquor licenses to the bar-saturated area? 

Not so much. 

The board can send a letter of recommendation for a particular motion to the relevant government office (and even get the backing of local politicians). But a plan to stem the tide of new liquor licenses, for instance, ultimately has to be approved by the State Liquor Authority, which has never shown much support for these types of measures. Last spring, for example, the SLA declined to enforce CB4's attempted "midnight curfew" on local bars (and local bars declined to follow the board's unenforced suggestions), and it also insisted the board cease its "illegal" and "ridiculous" habit of keeping information about neighborhood liquor licenses secret from the public. 

Back in 2012, Williamsburg's Community Board 1 waged a similar, fist-shaking war on the changing neighborhood, pressuring politicians to enforce an obscure rule prohibiting sidewalk dining (i.e. brunch) before noon on Sundays for fear it'd get in the way of churchgoers. After a push from local restaurant owners, restaurant-goers, and the neighborhood's City Council member Steve Levin (who said at the time "I'm not even sure why it's a law"), the provision was taken off the books last year.

So what is the board there to do for your 'hood? 

According to the city's website, "The main responsibility of the board office is to receive complaints from community residents, [but] they also maintain other duties, such as processing permits for block parties and street fairs," and have a say in the city's land use review process--which is in place to vet major real estate developments and other zoning questions--though their vote isn't binding. 

In the case of Bushwick, CB4 has also been active in pursuing more widely popular neighborhood objectives--namely, affordable housing and a potential down-zoning to stem the tide of development--but ultimately, the city is clear on this point: boards "do not have the ability to order any City agency or official to perform any task." So unless the SLA has a major change of heart, looks like Bushwick residents can drink up. 


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