City rejects variance to allow restaurant to serve alcohol

Lawrence's newest downtown restaurant will not be allowed to serve beer, the Lawrence City Commission decided Tuesday night.

PepperJax Grill, which plans to open this month at 10th and New Hampshire streets, was denied its application after the Salvation Army -- located across the street -- raised objections.

Salvation Army administrator Rich Forney said the homeless shelter in his church doesn't allow intoxicated guests. The rule is intended to help discourage drinking among people who are homeless, he said.

"On any given night, it is possible to find at least one person staying at the Salvation Army shelter in order to avoid the social temptations of using alcohol," Forney said.

He later added: "I know the people we deal with, and that is a very large temptation."

But William Fain, a district manager for PepperJax Grill, said beer served at his restaurant would be little problem for the neighborhood.

"We base ourselves as being a family-style restaurant," Fain said. "We have no intention of being alcohol-centered in any way, shape or form."

City code generally prohibits alcohol sales within 400 feet of a church or school. But commissioners on Tuesday noted that India Palace restaurant -- which sits on 10th Street within sight of the Salvation Army -- has been serving alcohol for years.

"They were here long before I got here," Forney said.

Several Lawrence residents backed Forney, saying the city should honor its ordinance and that commissioners should follow through on their intention to restrict expanded alcohol sales downtown.

"It's not just the commission's job to enact ordinances -- it's also to make sure the ordinances are fairly enforced," Lawrence resident Bill Mitchell said.

A majority of commissioners agreed, saying the Salvation Army's opposition was the deciding factor in their vote. Prospective tax revenues by allowing alcohol sales, they said, were so minimal as to be a nonfactor in the vote.

"I don't see a really, really strong potential danger" to public health and welfare, Commissioner Boog Highberger said, "but there is some."

Highberger was joined by Commissioners Mike Rundle and David Schauner in voting for denial. They were opposed by Mayor David Dunfield and Commissioner Sue Hack.

Fain said PepperJax would open Feb. 16.

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