The University of South Carolina is opposing a liquor license for a Five Points college bar in a court case this week that likely will have serious ramifications for bars across the state.
Neighbors living close to the urban village and entertainment district near USC are challenging the permanent liquor license for Rooftop Bar, formerly The Attic. They claim the concentration of bars that cater to mostly USC students, many underage, result in widespread vandalism, public drunkenness, lewd behavior and violence both in the district and adjoining residential areas.
USC has joined the protest in the S.C. Administrative Law Court, saying the number of drinking establishments, more than a dozen of which can stay open until the wee hours of the morning, contributes to alcohol abuse among USC students.
"We are quite fed up with the number of bars in Five Points," Anna Edwards, USC's associate vice president for student affairs, testified Tuesday, the second and final day of the often-contentious hearing before Judge Deborah Durden.
"My primary responsibility is to advocate for students and have a safe and healthy environment for students," she said. "I've been advocating for several years that we be more active in the community and begin expressing our opinions on this and the positions that the university has. And finally, we're at that point."
'Primarily and substantially'
Rooftop Bar is the second establishment whose application for a liquor license has been challenged by attorney Dick Harpootlian, who represents neighbors opposing the licenses. Last month, Durden denieda liquor license for Five Point Roost, formerly Carolina Pour House, which was owned by the same partnership as Rooftop Bar.
Durden ruled that the ownership of Roost, located at 800 Harden St., was murky. She also said the establishment strained the resources of local law enforcement, contributed to underage drinking and would be a "nuisance" to the community.
But it was her ruling that not enough food was sold at Roost that could affect more than 1,000 drinking establishments from the mountains to the beach. That ruling could be further clarified in the Rooftop Bar case.
The 1970s state Constitutional amendment that allowed liquor by the drink in South Carolina requires that it be sold only in restaurants and hotels. Restaurants are defined as establishments that are "primarily and substantially" engaged in the preparation and selling of food.
Most of the bars in Five Points that cater to a college crowd don't open until about 9 p.m. or later and sell little or no food.
The students "are not going to Five Points for a midnight brunch," Harpootlian said.
In her denial of a permanent liquor license for the Roost, Durden noted that the bar's percentage of food sales — 5 percent — did not represent "primary and substantial" sales.
However, Durden did not set a food-to-alcohol ratio in her ruling.
"I don't know if 50 percent is the mark," she said Monday during the Rooftop hearing. "I have said that 5 percent is not the mark."
'It hasn't been addressed'
Mike Montgomery, attorney for Roost and Rooftop co-owners Adam Ruonala and Stephen Bland, along with a third party, argued that the General Assembly changed the law in 2008. While unable to change the wording of the Constitutional amendment, the legislature defined "primary" as "a regular source of business to the licensed establishment."
Therefore, no set ratio of food-to-alcohol sales applies, Montgomery argued.
Tammy Young, supervisor of beverage licensing for the S.C. Department of Revenue, which controls liquor licenses in the state, agreed that state statutes require no ratio of food-to-alcohol sales, only that enough food be present on any given occasion to serve 40 people.
"It just hasn't been addressed" by state law, she said.
Ida Dixon, a senior special agent for SLED, which inspects establishments for DOR, added that per DOR's direction, whether or not there is any food at all on the premises during an initial inspection "is more of a trustworthy thing."
Adding to the confusion, state law requires an establishment to have a separate kitchen equipped with "a stove." However, DOR defines a microwave as a stove, citing the Miriam-Webster dictionary definition.
Harpootlian repeatedly derided Young and DOR attorney Patrick McCabe about the agency's interpretation of the state law, claiming the department was siding with what he said were illegal bars.
"Their job is not to protect the bars in Five Points; it's to enforce the law," he said.
'Antiquated and complex'
Harpootlian is also challenging the liquor license renewal of four bars in the 600 block of Harden Street adjacent or near to Rooftop Bar — Pinch, Lucky's, Latitude 22 and Cotton Gin. He is challenging them on the grounds of lack of food sales, underage drinking and nuisance.
The challenge also names the city of Columbia for not enforcing its ordinance that drinking establishments must be 400 feet — or a football field and quarter — from each other.
Ruonala, whose Rooftop Bar is operating on a 120-day temporary liquor license and sits atop Latitude 22, said the bar is attempting to grow its food business by selling various grilled cheese sandwiches and, on Sundays, chicken and waffles — all cooked in a convection oven and on a household electric griddle.
Without the guarantee of a liquor license, he said, the partners couldn't afford to put in more traditional restaurant equipment.
USC's Edwards said the vagaries of the state statutes helped lead the university to enter the fray, calling the liquor laws "antiquated and complex."
In its protest, USC noted the school's Alcohol Edu surveys showed that 37 percent of USC's first-year students — "almost all of whom are under 21" — said they drink in the city's bars and nightclubs, primarily in Five Points.
"This is triple the average at institutions nationally and double the average of SEC institutions," it said, referring to universities in the Southeastern Conference.
Rooftop attorney Montgomery argued the Alcohol Edu survey was unscientific and inaccurate. And he noted that by USC officials' own admission, "pre-gaming," or heavy drinking before students head to the bar, was a bigger problem on campus.
Edwards noted that while USC has no specific complaint against Rooftop Bar per se, "it's another establishment that contributes to the problem."Harpootlian: 'This is a liquor house'