NEWS

An Open Question

Drinking in public spaces is allowed on certain occasions, but some 
would like to see laws expanded to include 
Downtown Jacksonville

Maggie Rogers, Chris Pettit, Michael Romero and Ben Davis tailgated before the Jacksonville Jaguars played the Arizona Cardinals on Nov. 17.
Dennis Ho
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Guzzling a few beers in the parking lot at a Jaguars' game or knocking down a few cold ones at RV city for the Florida-Georgia football game won't likely get a fan in trouble for violating Jacksonville's open container law.

Many of the city-owned venues and events are listed as exempt from the city's open container ordinances, and police have the right to turn a blind eye toward responsible public drinking that often goes on in parking lots before any big home football game.

"As part of our extensive planning for large events, a decision can be made to relax strict enforcement of the open container law, at the discretion of officers," said Lauri-Ellen Smith, special assistant to Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford.

In 2005, when Jacksonville hosted the Super Bowl, liquor flowed freely at entertainment zones across Downtown, at The Landing, and at other bars and restaurants. But as the cruise ships which served as floating hotel sailed out of town, those laws were repealed.

When officials were planning One Spark 2013, they requested exemptions from both the city's noise and open container ordinances for a 26-square block area in Downtown Jacksonville.

"The Office of Special Events set those wheels in motion and, ultimately, City Council approved the waiver," said Joe Sampson, One Spark's executive director.

"We intend to offer two limited One Spark brews from Intuition Ale Works and are seeking an open container waiver for One Spark 2014," he said.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, are smaller events such as First Wednesday Art Walk, where patrons are warned not to take any alcoholic drinks out of local establishments because of the city's open container laws.

Terry Lorince, executive director of Downtown Vision, which puts on Art Walk, said she envisions a day when their 6,000 to 10,000 guests can enjoy the art, listen to performers and walk the streets with a glass of wine or a beer.

"Our challenge is, how do we make it a better Downtown experience — more and better art, more and better performances and a better experience?" Lorince said.

Art Walk, celebrating its 10th year, has never requested an exemption from city ordinances for open containers, Lorince said, citing among her concerns the costs for security and insurance.

For a typical Art Walk, Downtown Vision pays the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office $900, $340 to Jacksonville Fire & Rescue Department and another $240 for special event insurance.

Oktoberfest was more expensive. Downtown Vision paid $2,245 for additional police officers, which included set up and breakdown of street closures, $340 for fire/rescue coverage and $570 for liquor liability insurance.

"We want to find a relationship that works for everyone," she said, adding that she believes that some limited relaxing of the ordinance could be beneficial to the Downtown experience.

City ordinance contains a lengthy list of venues where alcohol can be sold, after this warning: "Alcoholic beverages can be addictive, dangerous and abused. Those who drink alcoholic beverages sometimes injure themselves, their family or innocent third parties."

The list of venues where alcohol can be served includes Veterans Memorial Arena, EverBank Field, the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts, Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, Metropolitan Park, Friendship Park, St. Johns Marina, Prime Osborn Convention Center, The Ritz Theatre & LaVilla Museum, the Equestrian Center, several other parks and the Jacksonville Main Library.

The ordinance includes this exception: "And any other property owned or leased by the City where the Mayor, or his authorized designee, determines that the sale, service or consumption of alcoholic beverages would be in the best interest of the City."

It also lists events where alcohol can be served from 8 a.m. the day before the event to 11:59 p.m. the day after the event. Those events include the Florida-Georgia football game, Atlantic Coast Conference championship, the Gator Bowl, the World of Nations, Jacksonville Jazz Festival, Spring Music Festivals, Bethune-Cookman events, FAMU events, fairground events, Jacksonville Suns games, Jacksonville Jaguars games, Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville games, EverBank Field and Veterans Memorial Arena events.

Despite any exemption, Smith noted they do not apply to those under age 21.

"Keep in mind this would not include underage drinking. That is enforced no matter what the event," she said.

"But, again, for adults who are attending large events, that latitude is given to officers. This would not exclude citing or arresting for infractions such as drunk and disorderly conduct, fighting, public urination, or [officers] taking enforcement action on someone with an open container getting behind the wheel of a car," Smith said.

Jennifer O'Donnell, who manages Chamblin's Uptown bookstore and café, eagerly anticipates the first Wednesday of each month for Art Walk, which results in a 50 percent increase in café sales and a 30 percent hike in bookstore sales.

But O'Donnell became concerned and unhappy when the October event featuring a biergarten in Hemming Plaza cut into her bottom line.

Because of the open container law, the beer drinking was restricted to the plaza. She said her suggestion of seeking a permit to allow drinking in the Downtown Art Walk area once a month has fallen on deaf ears. She was told the paperwork at City Hall is just too onerous.

"I don't want power drinkers in here. It would promote walking and expand Art Walk. You could look at art and grab a glass of beer or wine," O'Donnell said.

"The people coming down for Art Walk, they're not the people who are coming down to get drunk," she said. "We need to offer more incentives for people to come Downtown."

City Councilman John Crescimbeni said he's not aware of any requests for a Downtown entertainment zone for Art Walk. He was recently involved in creating an entertainment district along A. Philip Randolph Boulevard near the stadium.

Jacksonville Beach also enforces its open container law, which prohibits drinking in public places.

"It is unlawful for any person to consume or drink beer, wine, liquor or other alcoholic beverages on any public street, sidewalks, boardwalk or other public place." Those restrictions include the beach itself.

Under its ordinance, possession of an open container containing an alcoholic beverage in Jacksonville Beach is considered prima facie evidence of violating the laws.

Clay, Nassau and St. Johns counties all have ordinances banning open containers. However, on Oct. 24, St. Augustine's City Commission approved an ordinance allowing passengers on horse-drawn carriages to drink.

Jacksonville attorney Kate Mesic often runs across the city ordinances when a client informs her they've been arrested for violating the open container laws in Jacksonville or Jacksonville Beach and have pleaded no contest or guilty, thinking it would make the case go away.

"They have no idea they have entered a plea to a criminal offense," she said.

Breaking open container laws is a misdemeanor, but a plea will leave them with a criminal record, she warned.

"My job as a criminal defense attorney is to get it dropped or get them into a diversion program," Mesic said.

The only state laws dealing with open containers of alcoholic beverages prohibit their possession in vehicles, but there are exemptions for taxis, buses and motor homes longer than 21 feet.

A bottle of wine which has been resealed and transported, is not considered an open container.

The law, however, gives cities the right to adopt an ordinance that imposes more stringent restrictions on the possession of alcoholic beverages in a vehicle.

Other major U.S. cities have more liberal laws on open containers than those in Jacksonville and Jacksonville Beach, including Savannah, Kansas City, New Orleans and Las Vegas, according to drinkingmadeeasy.com.

In Savannah, open containers are allowed in the historic district and the alcohol must be in plastic cups of no more than 16 ounces. Open containers are also allowed in the Kansas City Power & Light District, a special shopping and entertainment area where drinks to go are allowed as long as they are in plastic containers, according to the website.

New Downtown bars and restaurants may assert more pressure to deal with the issue of open containers, Lorince said. There are now 23 bars Downtown, including the popular Elbow District.

"We've got a lot going on down here now," Lorince said.

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