No liquor law reforms were passed, or even received a vote for that matter, during the Utah Legislature's last session in January. Now, the state liquor commission is tweaking their rules - not to loosen any restrictions, but rather to tighten them.
Single-event permits are the subject of the latest Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC) crackdown.
Single-event permits allow for the sale of liquor, wine and full-strength beer over a three- or four-day period. There are limits on how many permits a single person or entity can apply for in a given year. If using three-day permits, a person can apply for up to 12 in a calendar year.
The Salt Lake Tribune reported last week that Snowbird Ski Resort was informed by the DABC that it may be turned down for a single-event permit for its annual Oktoberfest event which runs from mid-August to mid-October. But the Egyptian Theatre in Park City already had first-hand knowledge of the crackdown.
Randy Barton, manager at the Egyptian, appeared before the DABC on March 25 and successfully fought for single-event permits for this year's "Follies," which took place in April.
The Egyptian had been denied a single-event permit for Elvin Bishop's performances in early March, so Barton felt it was necessary to speak directly to the DABC Commission.
The DABC stated at the outset of the meeting that it intended to discuss the Egyptian Theatre's specific permit requests but to also use it as a jumping-off point for a discussion of the issuance of such permits more generally.
DABC's current position is that single-event licenses should only go to applicants that are promoting "the common good" and not private, for-profit entities. It is also examining whether applicants' events are truly "single" or whether they're part of the applicants' regular operations.
At issue with the new criteria is that it is not derived from language in the laws, but rather the administrative rules that DABC enacted. Specifically, the "common good" requirement is nowhere to be found in the Utah liquor laws applying to single-event permits.
The language in the laws cited by the DABC as the basis for its "common good" requirement provides only as follows: " the director may issue a single event permit to [an entity or person] that is conducting a convention, civic, or community enterprise."
Barton told the commission that DABC is not following the law.
"We as licensees have been told over and over and over if we don't like the laws the way they're written, that you are powerless to do anything about it, that we have to go to the legislature and seek change," he told the commission. "Whereas it seems like if the commission or the department finds something that they don't like about the law, they simply pass a rule or come to a decision like what was made with the single-event permit. "
The Egyptian Theatre was able to obtain single-event permits earlier in the year without any issues and the change caught people off guard.
"What changed between January and March?" Barton asked the commission. "Nothing legislatively changed."
The commission engaged in a wide-ranging examination of the Egyptian's operations - from its dealings with City Hall, to its rent, to the types of events it holds and its historical importance to Park City.
"Does the Egyptian have any nexus to the community?" one DABC commissioner asked.
By a 5-2 vote, the commission approved the Egyptian's permit application for "Follies."
"Our ability to get these 12 permits is critical to us," Barton told The Park Record. "We would prefer a year-round wine and beer permit but no such license exists that's available to us because we are not a restaurant and we are not a club. We need the ability to admit underage children into the theater and we do not want to restrict our audiences to ordering food with a drink. So we're in a very interesting place."
In a video interview with the Tribune last week, DABC Executive Director Sal Petilos brought up the Egyptian's close call, saying "I think that's when the divide began, in terms of for-profit versus nonprofit."
When asked whether permit applicants need to show that part of their profits will go to charity, Petilos was equivocal but noted "We would be concerned with subterfuge versus actual intent to benefit the community or charitable organization."
There is no language in Utah's laws or DABC's rules restricting single-event permits to nonprofit entities. In fact, the laws specifically note that such permits may be issued to partnerships, corporations and limited liability companies.
DABC Director of Compliance and Licensing Enforcement Nina McDermott was also participating in the video interview and said she had a different main focus.
"It's really the community and civic enterprise part of it," she said.
High West Operations Director and Executive Chef James Dumas told The Park Record that he is not surprised by the DABC's positions on the single-event permits.
"I think they've increased the scrutiny on what's going on in general," he said.
Dumas is involved with organizing Savor the Summit -- "Park City's biggest outdoor dinner party," it calls itself -- and said that this is the first year individual restaurants have needed to acquire individual permits to set up dining tables and serve liquor out on the sidewalks of Main Street.
"That threw a curveball at us," he said."
There are 23 restaurants participating in this year's Savor the Summit. Last year there were 30.
Barton agrees with Dumas's opinion of increased scrutiny by the DABC in general.
"Most licensees will have the feeling that things are more difficult, so to say. There's more of an effort to restrict and control permits and the way people function under their permits. More enforcement, more restriction, more control."
While Dumas accepts the Utah laws, he's not content with them.
"We're in Utah, it's a controlled state," he said. "It's hard from a tourism mentality -- it's really hard to operate like that."
DABC insists it is committed to following the liquor laws on the books.
"For us, our North Star really is the statute," Petilos said. "The statute is the product of a crucible of democracy. If people would like to change that then I would suggest that they firmly engage in that crucible."