Rolly: Two historic Salt Lake City churches fear new alcohol law puts them in development crosshairs

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Paul Rolly.

One irony from the 2017 legislative session is that the mostly teetotaling, Mormon lawmakers made it easier for restaurants to sell liquor near churches, which is having a direct impact on two houses of worship in downtown Salt Lake City.

The Legislature typically leans toward restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol (note the 0.05 legal blood alcohol limit) rather than easing requirements.

But because of HB442, the Japanese Church of Christ and the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple west of the Salt Palace are facing serious encroachment from a planned mixed-use development that will take up most of the block between 100 South and 200 South from 200 West to 300 West

Before the legislation, a 150-page bill that sought to clarify, simplify and improve Utah’s liquor laws, the two churches had some leverage to negotiate with the developer to protect their worship services and community activities from being swallowed up by a project that envisions high-density housing, commercial space and a restaurant.

The old law banned liquor-license holders from selling booze within 600 feet of a church, school or park. HB442, which passed overwhelmingly, reduces the distance to 300 feet.

Al Kubota, of the Japanese Church of Christ, explained that the previous rules allowed the Utah Liquor Commission to grant variances to the 600-foot threshold.

The churches could support the variances with conditions that protected their activities, Kubota said. The new 300-foot barrier has removed that bargaining chip.

The churches are the last remnants of the once-vibrant Japan Town, which sported dozens of Japanese-American-owned businesses, markets and restaurants that were wiped out by construction of the Salt Palace in the late 1960s.

“Businesses were obliterated and residents were dispersed,” state Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, wrote in a summary about the devastation suffered by the community.

“The Japanese community was blindsided because they were told that the [Salt Palace] was going to be built elsewhere. Consequently, the Japanese community voted in favor of building [the Salt Palace]. When reality hit the Japanese community, it found itself almost completely isolated and defenseless. The panic that followed was compounded by the totally unexpected notice that businesses and inhabitants must vacate within a certain time,” she added.

“For many, it was a grim reminder of Executive Order 9066 when the United States government unconstitutionally and forcibly removed 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast and forced them to live in American-style concentration camps.”

They worry that because the planned restaurant must be at least 300 feet from a church, it will be built on the south side of the project, near 200 South, and the rear of the development, which will contain the loading docks for delivery trucks and the garbage pickup area, will be across the street from the Japanese Church of Christ on 100 South.

In addition, the two churches, between them, hold about six festivals a year and have been allowed by the city and the Salt Palace board to close the street between 200 West and 300 West for their festivities.

“The developer has shown reluctance to go along with that,” said Kubota, who worries worshippers will be discouraged from attending services and the community celebrations.

Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, who worked to protect the churches and their communities during the Salt Palace expansion, speculated the change in the law shortening the legal distance from a church was the work of developers in the Legislature helping fellow developers rather than preserving the unique cultures in the community.

Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, who sponsored HB442, said the distance rule was just one part of the overall bill, which included removal of the controversial “Zion Curtains” for restaurants and addressed many other alcohol policies.

Critics had complained for years about the 600-foot rule, he said. Restaurants could apply for variances, but the rules defining those exceptions were ambiguous and confusing.

Now, there are no variances. Wilson said the goal was to make the law more understandable and simple.

All stakeholders with interests in liquor legislation, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were involved in drafting the measure, Wilson said. A lot of give and take took place and no party got all it wanted, he added, but most went away fairly satisfied.

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