By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Sea Isle City officials are looking to fast track a change to a 2003 zoning law that currently prevents the transfer of a liquor license to a new bar that has replaced the former LaCosta Lounge, a local landmark for decades.
After a lengthy discussion at their meeting Tuesday, members of City Council introduced an ordinance that would revise language in the zoning law that blocks the liquor license from being grandfathered in at the newly opened Beach Bar at the Ludlam.
Until Council gives final approval to the transfer of the “pocket” liquor license, the Beach Bar is prohibited from selling alcohol, although it is operating with BYOB dining service for the time being.
The governing body is looking to expedite the change to help the Beach Bar begin selling alcohol during Sea Isle’s lucrative summer tourism season and to get the bar’s employees back to work.
“It’s the right thing to do during the pandemic. Small businesses have been suffering. Employees have been suffering,” said Councilman Frank Edwardi, who has spearheaded the proposed change in the zoning law.
In an interview after the Council meeting, Edwardi recalled LaCosta’s lengthy history at the corner of John F. Kennedy Boulevard and Landis Avenue, the gateway to Sea Isle’s downtown business district.
He believes the liquor license should remain at the same location for the Beach Bar, LaCosta’s successor.
“It’s been on that corner for 80 years. It needs to go back there,” Edwardi said in the interview.
Now that the ordinance has been introduced, Council plans to adopt it at its June 22 meeting. Under the legal requirements for new ordinances, it would take another 20 days for the measure to become law.
However, an additional three days would be needed to advertise the ordinance to the public, meaning it would not take effect until July 15, City Solicitor Paul Baldini said.
After that, Council would need to hold a special meeting on July 16 to formally approve the liquor license transfer to the Beach Bar to allow it to begin selling alcohol, Baldini explained.
Developers Christopher Glancey and Bob Morris, who bought LaCosta Lounge in 2018 for $7.3 million, have rebranded it as the Beach Bar at the Ludlam. They once planned on calling it the LaCosta Beach Bar, but changed the name again.
Glancey said he is anxious to have the liquor license approved so that the Beach Bar can fully open with alcohol sales.
“Everyone wants it open. Council wants it open. The town wants it open,” he said in an interview after the meeting.
Speaking publicly during the meeting, Glancey warned Council that the 2003 zoning law could unintentionally end up hurting other bars in the future – if they needed a liquor license transfer – unless the language is changed.
“The intent is certainly not to injure the business,” he said.
In May, the Beach Bar hit a legal hurdle when Council voted 3-1 to deny the “place to place” transfer of the liquor license from LaCosta to the Beach Bar. Edwardi cast the dissenting vote then.
Council members Mary Tighe, Jack Gibson and J.B. Feeley said they all wanted to approve the liquor license transfer, but noted that were constrained by the legal requirements of the 2003 zoning law.
Citing those legal restrictions during the 3-1 vote, Tighe, Gibson and Feeley concluded that the liquor license did not meet Sea Isle’s requirements to be grandfathered in at the Beach Bar.
However, the new ordinance, introduced by a 4-0 vote Tuesday, includes language that would allow the liquor license to remain at the same location, meaning it could be transferred “place to place” from LaCosta to the Beach Bar under the grandfather clause.
Council President William Kehner did not vote Tuesday to avoid any potential conflicts of interest stemming from his old job as manager of LaCosta’s former liquor store. He also recused himself from voting in May.
LaCosta Lounge shut down last September when the lease expired for the bar’s former owner, local businessman James Bennett. After a court battle ending in their favor, Glancey and Morris bought the liquor license from Bennett for $825,000.
Tighe lamented that Glancey and Bennett did not reach a deal that could have averted a court fight and also given Council more time to consider a change in the zoning law for the liquor license transfer.
“It’s not something I want to rush into,” Tighe said.
LaCosta’s former liquor license became a “pocket” license after Bennett’s lease for the bar expired, Baldini explained. That meant it was no longer affiliated with any specific bar and did not meet the grandfather clause requirements of the 2003 zoning law.
During the meeting, audience members who supported the liquor license transfer expressed their frustration with the legal nuances. They urged Council to move ahead as quickly as possible to approve the license transfer so that the Beach Bar could begin selling alcohol and they could have their jobs over the summer.
“This is when I make the bulk of my money,” bartender Chance Hayes said of the summer season.
Gregory Rivera, executive chef at the Beach Bar, ominously predicted that without a liquor license, the Beach Bar “is going to die.”
“Revenue is low for us right now,” Rivera said, adding that the Beach Bar is “fighting to stay alive.”