Council votes to scrap distance limit between liquor stores in suburbs

Despite vocal opposition, Edmonton city council voted Monday to get rid of the bylaw that requires liquor stores be at least 500 metres apart on large commercial sites in the suburbs.

'I've never heard someone say, 'Edmonton needs more liquor stores,' says sommelier opposed to change

Suburban liquor stores in Edmonton could be open to a little more competition if a move to amend city zoning bylaws goes through Monday. (marathonmouth)

Despite vocal opposition, Edmonton city council voted Monday to get rid of a requirement that liquor stores be at least 500 metres apart on large commercial sites in the suburbs.

Existing regulations for liquor stores in mature neighbourhoods won't change.

Council heard from speakers representing Costco and Abbottsfield Mall in favour of getting rid of the separation requirement.

Retailers and developers in suburban areas have complained that existing rules prevented them from adding liquor stores to their operations when there is already another liquor store operating within 500 metres.

Several other people spoke against the proposed change.

David Owens, owner of family-owned specialty store Sherbrooke Liquor, said this new rule will result in fewer boutique liquor retailers opening and give freer reign to big discount retailers.

"It does make it tougher for those of us who are in the community and are community owned stores," Owens said. "Discount retailers push to erode profits and there's not a lot of margin to be made as it is."

Adam Koziak, owner of the Chateau Louis liquor store, also argued against the changes, as did Margo Burgess, a sommelier.

"I've never heard someone say, 'Edmonton needs more liquor stores,' " Burgess said.

In an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM on Monday, Ivonne Martinez, president of the Alberta Liquor Store Association, said relaxing the regulations would be harmful to Edmonton's neighbourhoods.

"The reason we went to city council back in 2007 to come up with this bylaw was because we were listening to the police services, RCMP and health services," Martinez said.

"They were telling us if there is a big saturation of liquor stores, then you're going to have problems, anything from aggravated assault with a weapon to people at risk, mental issues.

"It just creates an area where people can come and get into trouble."

'We don't sell bread, we sell a controlled substance'

The Edmonton Police Service did research to determine if there was any correlation between liquor store density and criminal activity.

Its October 2016 report notes there is "a significant positive correlation on the number of crime occurrences and the number of liquor stores in areas where the distance between liquor stores is less than 379 metres on average."

An Alberta Health Services report from June concluded that increasing liquor store density "could be a major public health concern," Martinez told CBC.

However, crime analytics prepared for the city — using crime statistics gathered between January 2012 and December 2015  — found there was "no significant correlation" between the number of liquor stores in a given area and neighbourhood crime rates. 

'The issues have not gone away'

Even so, Martinez doesn't want Edmonton to find out the hard way that you can have too much of a good thing.

"We know that when we do have a saturation of liquor stores we do have problems. We don't sell bread, we sell a controlled substance," she said.

"The city has asked for advice again and the results from EPS and Alberta Health Services are pretty much the same, so the issues have not gone away."

The current bylaw was introduced to limit further proliferation of liquor stores along established commercial shopping corridors, such as Jasper Avenue and Whyte Avenue

Although city administrators believe the separation works well in traditional main street areas, they argue that it's been problematic in suburban areas. They said it's been prohibitive in big box store developments, and often restricts the ability for more than one liquor store to locate in suburban commercial centres.

Although the regulation change would open suburban retailers to more competition and eliminate a de facto monopoly in some areas, Martinez said her concerns are not about the bottom line. 

She said the city already has an extremely high concentration of liquor stores per capita. Cutting regulations on new retailers would provide little benefit consumers or existing businesses, she said.

"In the Edmonton area, with less than a million people, we have triple the amount of liquor stores as the entire Toronto metro area, and they have six million people. 

"I would say that's a lot of liquor stores."

Council voted 8-5 in favour of relaxing the distance limit between stores in suburban areas. Councillors. Bev Esslinger, Moe Banga, Tony Caterina, Dave Loken and Michael Walters voted against.

With files from Nola Keeler