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Archive for March 14th, 2009|Daily archive page

State judge sides with neighborhoods’ wish and city’s order to close First Avenue liquor store; mire of state appeal process slogs on

In City Hall, Neighborhoods on March 14, 2009 at 7:45 pm

It can take what seems forever to shut down a liquor store once a city council in Iowa decides to take away the store’s license.

Proof of that is the Liquor & Tobacco Point store, 1545 First Ave. SE, which sits on the border of two of the city’s urban neighborhoods, Wellington Heights and Mound View.

In early September and after protests from neighborhood leaders, the Police Department, which had approved a liquor license for the store in July, notified the store that it was in violation of city law: It was within 300 feet of a church, which, in this instance is the storefront church called Mission of Hope.

On Oct. 8, the Cedar Rapids City Council revoked the license of the liquor store, which was just opening.

It looked like a victory for the neighborhood leaders at something of a noteworthy spot. It is across busy First Avenue East from the still-new Hy-Vee Food Store, which was designed to be, with the help of significant City Hall financial incentives, a commitment and a catalyst to bring new life to a highly visible spot in the middle of two struggling neighborhoods.

However, the Oct. 8 vote by the City Council vote appeared not to matter at all.

Liquor & Tobacco Point stayed open. It is open. And it dispatched its attorney to move the dispute into the molasses of the appeal process at the state’s Alcohol Beverages Division.

Now, nearly five months later, the city and the neighborhood leaders have learned that they have won vindication from Margaret LaMarche, a state administrative law judge. In a ruling dated Feb. 25, LaMarche concludes that Liquor & Tobacco Point, indeed, should close and that the owner’s liquor license be rescinded to operate at the First Avenue East location.

In her 12-page ruling, LaMarche takes note that the Cedar Rapids Police Department had given the store a liquor license not realizing that the location was too close to a church. For that reason, the judge concluded that owner Rabbani Wahidy, of Cedar Falls, should have the license in Cedar Rapids rescinded rather than having his license to operate in Iowa revoked. He has another store in Cedar Falls.

But that is far from the end of it.

Carter Stevens, an attorney in Cedar Falls, said last week that the state appeal process pushes on.

He reported that he has 30 days to continue the appeal to Lynn Walding, the director of the state’s Alcohol Beverages Division.

Walding acknowledged last week that it could take as long as another four, five or six months before the state agency works through procedural steps and then makes a final decision in the case. Then Liquor & Tobacco Point can go to court to challenge any ruling unfavorable to the store.

In the meantime, the Mission of Hope church has begun to display a sign on its front window, seeking help from donors that will enable the 7-year-old church find a new location.

In what might be a year that it will take to close the liquor store down, the reason to close it – its proximity to a church – might vanish.

What will remain is the sentiment of the neighborhood leaders that their neighborhoods needed a bright, shiny new grocery store and that they don’t need another liquor store, tobacco store or payday loan store.

Brand-new congressional ‘earmark’ of $950,000 is intended to get the long-delayed Highway 100 Extension finally built

In City Hall, Jim Prosser, Linn County government on March 14, 2009 at 6:27 am

Cedar Rapids would already have a dazzling new $200-million federal courthouse and a new, $100-million-plus, 7-mile highway extending Highway 100 from Edgewood Road west and south to Highway 30 if only the wants of nearly every community leader and local elected official was what mattered.

Both projects have languished nearly a decade or more.

On Friday, word arrived that the Highway 100 project has benefitted from what came to the rescue of the courthouse project early last fall –- a federal “earmark,” one of those special insertions into big congressional spending bills that are often pooh-poohed but much beloved at the local level.

In the just-passed congressional Omnibus budget bill, Congress has earmarked $950,000 for the Highway 100 Extension, which Cedar Rapids City Manager Jim Prosser and Lu Barron, chairwoman of the Linn County Board of Supervisors, on Friday said is a vital boost for the highway project.

The money will come to the city of Cedar Rapids to begin the process of buying up property for the highway’s right of way, Prosser and Barron said.

The key task now, the two said, is to get the Highway 100 Extension back into the Iowa Transportation Commission’s five-year construction plan, which is where it needs to be for the highway to get built.

Prosser said the congressional earmark will get the project into that crucial Transportation Commission lineup.

The project had been in that lineup at the start of the decade and the project had a champion for it on the Transportation Commission, Cedar Rapidian Tom Aller, the Alliant Energy executive.

In fact, the highway would already be in place had proponents of the highway project, including Cedar Rapids City Hall, not been outmaneuvered by project opponents.

Those opponents fit into two groups: Those concerned about Linn County’s Rock Island Botanical Preserve, which sits along the route of the highway extension; and the developers of a higher-end housing development near the proposed highway.

The federal highway-building bureaucracy requires that a project take steps to make sure it does not damage the environment. And after all these years, the Highway 100 Extension project has cleared the environmental hurdles.

What the backers of the project had not foreseen was the imagination of developers, James Properties Inc., and the ability of a non-elected Linn County Conservation Board to join forces with them to block the project.

Back in early 2002, as the Highway 100 Extension project was working its way through the required federal environmental assessment project, the developers donated pieces of land with no development potential to the county’s Rock Island Botanical Preserve so that the preserve now extended into the alignment of the highway.

The Conservation Board gushingly accepted the donation.

It took several years for the terms of Conservation Board members to end and new appointees by the Linn County supervisors to take their places before the Conservation Board was willing to allow a right-of-way through the donated land for the highway.

By the way, it was back in the early fall of 2008 that the federal “earmark” phenomenon came to the rescue of the downtown courthouse project. That happened after the June flood damaged the existing federal courthouse here and helped Iowa’s congressional delegation to make the case to insert $182-million request into a funding bill to get a new courthouse built.

Construction will start within weeks at the site between the Cedar River and Second Street SE and Seventh and Eighth avenues SE. (First Street SE will dead end at Seventh Avenue SE for the new courthouse, and on Friday, First Street SE was closed off. Drive down there, and get a feel for the new traffic pattern.)