May 18, 2023 - News

Iowa's new "nuisance bar" law could help fix Court Avenue

Illustration of a gavel coming down on a cocktail napkin.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Des Moines could use a new law that gives cities more ability to file lawsuits against the owners of problematic bars, city manager Scott Sanders tells Axios.

Why it matters: Metro leaders have long voiced frustration about having limited ability to close establishments that they view as posing an ongoing threat to public safety.

  • The provisions in the new law may help to expedite action.

Catch up fast: There's an ongoing effort to abate crime and other social problems in the Court Avenue entertainment district.

  • Some of the problems are associated with existing establishments — specifically bars within Court Center where the city last year halted alcohol sales at midnight.

Meanwhile, Iowa lawmakers approved a law last year pursued by the city of Davenport that allows some local governments to sue bars in district court rather than relying on the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division (ABD) to revoke a license.

  • City and or county attorneys can now also seek a temporary injunction before a case goes to trial to limit an establishment's alcohol sales to 6am-10pm.

Zoom in: Legal battles between cities and bars can sometimes continue for years, with the establishments able to operate while cases and appeals are pending.

  • Owners of Lime Lounge in the East Village, for example, have waged multiple court battles beginning in 2016 that challenge DSM's denials of required licensing or permits because of noise complaints.
  • In the latest ongoing court case filed in February, owners of the bar — now called Nightengale Cocktail — are asking a district court judge to order Sanders and the city to take actions necessary to approve its liquor license.

State of play: Davenport recently filed the first two lawsuits against local bars under the new law, Tyler Ackerson, an executive officer of the ABD, tells Axios.

  • Cities that deny licenses must prove that the business is no longer run by a "person of good moral character" using criteria outlined in state rules.

What they're saying: Larry Smithson, a Court Avenue district bar owner, tells Axios that he cautions against "selective law enforcement" that focuses on entertainment district businesses.

  • "This is going to get very interesting at a minimum," Smithson said after reviewing the Court Avenue district recommendations, which include learning how to use the "nuisance bar" law.

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