WESTBROOK — The experience of a Westbrook bar may offer some lessons to the city of Portland in its efforts to shut down Sangillo’s Tavern, which has been subject to numerous police calls over the past year.
When the liquor license for Skybox Bar & Grill came up for renewal this month, police Capt. Tom Roth told the Westbrook City Council that he was concerned about the number of complaints to police, mostly for loud noise, that the Brown Street bar had generated in the past year.
But the council didn’t try to revoke its liquor license. The city had tried that twice before. Both times, the owners appealed to the state and the license denial was overturned.
Trying to put an establishment out of business by yanking its liquor license at the municipal level isn’t easy. When the Portland City Council voted to deny a license to Sangillo’s this month, it was only the start of a process that can take months, and the outcome is not guaranteed.
Portland police asked the City Council to revoke Sangillo’s liquor license after receiving 23 calls to the tavern on Hampshire Street over the course of about a year. Eleven of the calls concerned fights, and one, in January, was for a man who was shot outside the bar, allegedly after an argument with patrons in the tavern, police said. The number of fights was much higher over that time period than for some much larger bars.
An establishment’s owner can appeal a liquor license denial to the state Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations.
Sangillo’s attorney, Harry Center, has said its owners intend to appeal the city’s ruling once it gets written notice of the denial. That’s expected to happen on Monday, Center said. Sangillo’s then must file its appeal within 15 days.
There are specific criteria for revoking a license. These include certain criminal convictions of the applicant, noncompliance with local zoning or land use ordinances and servers who haven’t completed a certified training program. The state will also uphold a denial if it finds employees or patrons have violated waste disposal, health, parking or traffic rules or have been involved in repeated incidents in violation of law in or around the premises.
But if a municipality fails to precisely follow any part of the license denial process, from missing a deadline by a day to leaving out information on a document, the bureau can grant the license – and has in some cases.
“Each appeal of a municipality denial is unique,” said Tim Poulin, acting director of the bureau.
Since last year, Poulin has been the hearings officer for liquor license appeals – when a town or city denies a liquor license and the applicant appeals to the state, Poulin recommends whether to uphold or overturn the denial.
Poulin’s decision then must be approved by the commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services. The department’s decision can be appealed in court.
“It’s not a quick process,” Poulin said. “We want to get it right, so we take as much time as we deem necessary to make the right decision.”
He said the department receives a couple to a half-dozen appeals every year. Since taking over last July, he’s been involved in three cases.
In the pending case of a bottle club in Chelsea, the applicant had too many unregistered vehicles on the property, which violated a town ordinance.
In February, the state found the town of Oxford took too long to hold a vote on a license application from an outdoor grill called The Maine Pit – but also that the application was incomplete because it wasn’t signed by the owner. The state overturned the town’s ruling, but made the owner reapply for a liquor license.
“They all have some level of complexity,” Poulin said.
In Westbrook, neighbors had long complained about noise, fights and disorderly conduct at Skybox’s predecessor, Andy’s Tavern, where a man died in 1997 after his skull was fractured in a fight outside the bar.
But when the City Council decided not to renew its liquor license in 2002, the reason given was that the bar was inappropriate for a neighborhood the city was trying to revitalize – which didn’t meet the law’s parameters for denial.
Three months later, the state overturned the decision and granted the license.
In 2004, a couple from Gray bought the bar and renamed it Skybox.
When the City Council wouldn’t renew their liquor license in 2008, the couple decided not to appeal and sold the business to Allen and Lynn Moore, who lived in the neighborhood.
The council tried to deny them a license, but the state found the city couldn’t judge the Moores based on what took place at the bar before they owned it, and overturned the city’s decision.
Councilor John O’Hara said at the Westbrook council’s April 7 meeting that going after the bar’s liquor license might not be the best way to proceed.
“If we’re looking to tighten up our noise complaint issues, then we probably have to attack this problem in another vein,” he said.
The council decided to table its vote on Skybox’s liquor license until next Monday, when the bar’s amusement permit is also up for renewal. O’Hara thought this might be an easier target because there is no state appeals process for entertainment licenses.
Skybox owner Allen Moore said he has intended to turn it into a music venue since he bought it.
“Without my entertainment license, I’m out of business,” he said.
About two years ago he found the time and money to focus on that, he said, and started with live rock shows once a month. Last summer, he brought in a disc jockey to play reggae music once a week. This month, he held the first big acoustic show and has plans for the second one soon.
He said the music has helped him change his clientele from barflies to people looking for a dance party.
But noise complaints have increased and the city is taking notice. Between April 14 of last year and the same date this year, there were 25 calls to police about noise, disturbances or intoxicated people – about twice as many as the year before, Roth said.
The next-highest number of police calls to a Westbrook bar in that time was four to Thatcher’s, according to an analysis by Roth.
Moore doesn’t think the complaints about his bar are comparable to those at Sangillo’s, where the police calls were for more than just excess noise.
“Say I am loud sometimes,” he said. “At least we’re only in there dancing.”
Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: