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Downtown Fullerton bars likely will get to serve more people later this year after nearly 10 years of a restriction that was supposed to help quell some of the downtown problems with drunks.

In 2007, the City Council adopted a more stringent occupancy restriction than is called for in the state fire code. However, the restriction ultimately failed to tame some of drinking-related issues in downtown Fullerton, according to a report by Fire Chief Wolfgang Knabe.

“We’re trying to say, ‘Hey, give us what the rest of the state has.’ Give us what Anaheim has, give us what Santa Ana has. We want to be competitive with the rest of the cities,” Slidebar owner Jeremy Popoff said at the Aug. 15 council meeting.

The bars currently are restricted to one person per 15 square feet. Under the proposed ordinance, the city will adopt the 2016 state fire code which could allow for one person per seven square feet.

“We’re not doubling the occupancy … only like the dance floors, those kind of things, are going to increase occupancy,” said Terry Strom of the Restaurant Management Association, adding that occupancy in dining areas will remain the same.

Knabe’s report indicated the current city occupancy code could put Fullerton businesses at a competitive disadvantage.

One bar owner said the restaurant and bar industry is up against stiff policies.

“The restaurant and food industry and bar industry is up against some pretty tough legislation. Minimum wage being a major focus. We’re asking for a chance to compete,” said Joe Florentine, owner of Florentine’s Grill.

The City Council, at its Sept. 19 meeting, will consider a resolution of intent to amend the city code to match the state fire code.The proposed code amendment will come for its first vote on Oct. 3 and get a second reading on Oct. 17 before taking effect on Nov. 16, according to Knabe’s presentation at the Aug. 15 meeting.

However, the code change won’t be automatic — businesses citywide will have to apply for the occupancy change, which could trigger other things in the state fire code like adding fire sprinklers, emergency exits, restrooms or widen entrances, among many other things, Knabe said.

“We take each individual business as its own. There’s no brush stroke that paints it the same,” Knabe said.

Resident and community watchdog Jane Rands, during public comment, said she was concerned that the added occupancy could increase drunken disorderly conduct in downtown Fullerton.

“Give us some comfort level,” Rands said.

“We can certainly control crowds much more effectively if they’re inside of our establishments,” Popoff said, addressing Rands’ concerns. “I think every one of her concerns would be alleviated by this.”

Popoff said that a lot of the rowdy activity is because of the long wait lines to get into bars in the downtown area, due to the restrictive city occupancy code.

However, one resident said the bars aren’t doing a good job of crowd control in the first place.

Tony Package said he gets invited to the Police Chief’s citizen advisory committee and he sees the monthly reports on the downtown bars that indicate overcrowding and forced closures by the police department.

“Which means to me, the internal controls in these bars have failed,” Package said. “These closures are one way in which we can enforce control over these drunken and rowdy crowd.”

“So why do we wish to exacerbate this situation by permitting more crowds in bars?” Package said.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org.

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