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Parks board passes guidelines for the sale of alcohol in parks

Thursday, August 4, 2022 by Willow Higgins

After much discussion, Austin’s Parks and Recreation Board has posted a set of guidelines that will help them decide when to approve conditional use permits that would allow for the sale of alcohol in city parks. With the recommended guidelines in mind, the board subsequently voted to approve a CUP allowing the sale of alcohol in downtown’s Republic Square Park.

The parks board has gone back and forth on the subject in several meetings, with members debating how they can vote on CUP requests for alcohol sales consistently and responsibly. After CUP requests were submitted by vendors like Salt & Time in Republic Square (which was taken over by Rosen’s Bagels) and the Zilker Cafe outside of Barton Springs, the board is expecting to continue receiving similar requests. Because the board has to make these decisions on a case-by-case basis, and because approving the permit permanently rezones the property for alcohol, the newly agreed upon guidelines will help them vote methodically. The Contracts and Concessions Committee weighed in on the guidelines to make sure they were written in a sound manner.

“The intended purpose of governing public recreation areas is to secure and preserve the fullest enjoyment of public recreation areas by the public,” the guidelines begin.

The guidelines, which now move on to City Council in the form of a recommendation, acknowledge several concerns, like proximity to a body of water that could pose a safety issue, infringing on children’s play spaces, and the need for increased staffing for enforcement and patrol.

The guidelines recommend that applicants demonstrate a clear benefit to the city, provide plans and policies that will help comply with the law, locate the vendor’s proximity to water bodies and playscapes, and demonstrate that community feedback is favorable to alcohol sales in their local park.

At last week’s parks board meeting, some board members advocated for approving the CUP at Republic Square while others expressed concern about it. Chair Laura Cottam Sajbel was one of two opposing votes on the motion, alongside Board Member Lisa Hugman.

“There were 300 letters that I counted that we got from people that were opposed to having alcohol in the park,” Cottam Sajbel said. “They were concerned about safety …. They were asking that we preserve spaces that are safe for people who do not want to be in the presence of people who are drinking alcohol … one was very concerned about permitless carry and the mixing of guns and alcohol.”

Cottam Sajbel said she reached out to the city’s legal department this week to discover any potential liability concerns but did not hear back.

“We don’t know the answer to what happens if somebody sues the city, if something happens, if there’s an altercation or whatever, and I think that’s a risk for taxpayers,” she said.

But seven members of the board voted in favor, feeling that downtown is an appropriate location for alcohol sales because alcohol consumption already takes place in locations surrounding the park.

“This isn’t a new operation that’s taking place over at Republic Square, and there haven’t been any incidents outside one that wasn’t related to the actual cafe. Just by virtue of that, I’m voting for it,” Board Member Richard DePalma said. “But the second (reason) is just the enjoyment of the space. Although I can appreciate not everybody enjoys space the same way that I do, we have 330 parks in this system and surely there have to be few where people can go ahead and socialize through this means.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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