Take It Inside

The city's latest bar brawl with the OLCC: how late can patios stay open?

Thomas Winston Morgan marched across Southeast Yamhill Street on a summer night in 2011 in a T-shirt, boxer shorts and flip-flops, and demanded the birthday party stop. The laughing voices coming off the back patio were keeping him and his partner, Stephen Oringdulph, awake past midnight.

"You've gotta deal with this," he said, "or I'm calling the cops."

But there wasn't much Morgan could do. The party wasn't at a house, but at the Sweet Hereafter, a vegan bar on Southeast Belmont Street.

In the past two years, Belmont has blossomed with watering holes, and four bars on the block between Southeast 33rd and 34th avenues feature back patios bordering homes and apartments. Prohibition-style cocktail bar Circa 33 even built a patio that wraps around the patio of the Aalto Lounge.

And many neighbors have had it.

"Honestly, the high, squeaking female voices when they're drunk—I just want to rip my head off," says Morgan, who bought a white-noise machine to drown out the crowd. "Just take it in at 10."

Portland city officials, including the mayor, agree with him. The Oregon Liquor Control Commission does not. And the state booze agency is writing one-size-fits-all patio drinking rules for the whole state—a move that prevents Portland from coming down on bars with noise problems.

The OLCC rules say outdoor seating must close at 11 pm on weeknights and 1 am on Fridays and Saturdays. The city wants patios near residences to be quiet by 10 pm every night.

The rules apply to any establishment in Oregon, whether it's a bar deck in Dufur far from the nearest house, or a patio in Laurelhurst pushed up against someone's backyard.

Farshad Allahdadi, the OLCC's director of license services, says his agency has to consider the whole state, and not give in to the city's pressure that rules be Portland-centric.

"This is the trick: Every community has its own standard," Allahdadi says. "If you're a McMenamins, you want to have some solid understanding of what the expectations are, regardless of where you're going to open in Oregon."

Under current rules, bars in Oregon can keep their patios open until last call, although many are pressured into closing outdoor service at 10 pm by neighborhood associations.

Mayor Charlie Hales made an unannounced appearance at the OLCC's rule hearing March 21, imploring the liquor board to give authority to local municipalities to decide when patio service should stop.

"There are tens of thousands of people who have invested in the urban lifestyle," Hales said. "The friction is a very serious problem."

Hales has long wanted the OLCC to give Portland more authority. Their quarrel dates back to his time as a city commissioner a decade ago, when he and then-Mayor Vera Katz wanted to shut down the Gypsy on Northwest 21st Avenue over noise complaints and drunken behavior. The OLCC said no.

The city's hands may be tied this time, too. Portland has noise ordinances that limit amplified music after 10 pm.

"Ten o'clock is a great time to move your party indoors," says David Sweet, chair of the city's Noise Review Board. "Let the neighbors get some sleep."

But noise inspectors can't go after bars for patrons talking too loudly—human voices are considered protected as free speech. So city officials are asking the OLCC to give them jurisdiction over porch hours.

Last July, the OLCC quashed a city ban of malt liquor and cheap wine downtown. And the OLCC has granted liquor licenses to food carts despite a city lawsuit trying to stop it.

Circa 33 manager Michael Anderson says he wouldn't mind the city enforcing a 10 pm patio shutdown on Belmont. "We try our very best to close our patio at 10 o'clock," he says. "It's not worth the headache of the neighbors."

But at least one homeowner found the headache too painful. 

Meg Poehler lived for nine years in a townhouse behind Aalto Lounge and Circa 33 until last May, when she sold it and moved to Tigard.

“There are lots of things I miss about Portland,” she says. “Lots. But sleep just makes a huge quality-of-life difference.” 

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