Social District Decision: Will Council Buck The Recommendations of Legal Counsel, City Manager and Police Chief?


Saline City Council may face a tough decision on the Saline Social District: Buck the recommendations of city lawyers, the city manager and the police chief, or potentially lose the social district it's been working on for months.

At Monday's city council meeting, at the request of Councillor Nicole Rice, there was a discussion on the proposed social district in downtown Saline.  City council approved a resolution asking the state to create a social district along South Ann Arbor Street and the southern sidewalk of Michigan Avenue in the downtown core. The state has yet to approve the plan. 

There are all kinds of moving pieces.  

The south side social district would allow customers of Mac's, Salt Springs Brewery, Brecon Grille and DropTop Pizza (not yet open) to allow drinks in specially marked cups that allow patrons to walk through the district's Commons Area while consuming their drinks. The social district does not include the area around Dan's Downtown Tavern or the north side of downtown. 

The south side establishments say they will not participate in the social district unless Dan's is included.

"The restaurants and Saline Main Street have done their own research and have taken the position that it is possible to cross Michigan Avenue to include Dan’s Downtown Tavern within one social district," Saline Main Street, the downtown revitalization organization, wrote on its Facebook Page.

City Manager Colleen O'Toole said at the last meeting that the city would investigate the issue with city attorneys.

On Monday, O'Toole said preliminary work by legal counsel continues to reiterate the original understanding that the social distinct's Commons Area cannot cross US-12 because people are not permitted to consume alcohol on a highway. Since the definition of the Commons Area is a place where people can consume alcohol, the highway cannot be part of the commons area.

The north side also cannot have a social district because it's the only establishment on the north side, and the commons area must be between establishments in a continuous area. Again, the highway prevents Dan's from being contiguous with one of the establishments across the street, O'Toole said.

The Michigan Liquor Control Act says "Alcoholic liquor shall not be consumed on the public highways."

Dan's has more than one liquor license and the city is waiting to learn if the two licenses will allow for the creation of a separate social district on the north side.

Rice pointed out that communities like Chelsea and Howell have state-approved social districts that include a highway.

O'Toole said some jurisdictions and "some folks" at the liquor control commission see the inclusion of highway in the district - but it can't be part of a "commons area," which means you can't consume across the highway. The state requires two contiguous businesses within the commons area.

"Our attorney's opinion is that that there's no way for a district to be contiguous if it crosses Michigan Avenue," O'Toole said.

Rice said she disagreed with the legal counsel's position thus far. 

Rice asked O'Toole what would happen if Dan's was able to use its two licenses to create a north-side district. Would a patron be able to buy a drink at Dan's and carry it across Michigan Avenue to the concert series on a Thursday night? O'Toole said it's her understanding that would be prohibited.

Rice was disappointed by that interpretation.

"I'm hesitant in my acceptance of that simply because other cities aren't doing it," Rice said, pointing to Chelsea and Howell again. "I feel we've dug deeper than we needed to. We've turned a grey area into a black and white area and I'm disappointed we can't figure out a way to say yes to this. I would like to encourage us to come up with a way."

O'Toole said the city council can accept the recommendations of legal and city staff or choose what may be a riskier route.

"It's certainly your discretion if you'd like to take on more liability. I will just say, frankly, at this point, I do not see it coming with the recommendation of public safety staff," O'Toole said.

O'Toole said she expects additional clarification on the issues by the July 1 issue.

Rice pointed to the Michigan Liquor Control Act, which says, "Alcoholic liquor shall not be consumed on the public highways."

Rice said she would "go to battle" on that interpretation - Consumption is not the same as carrying a cup across the street.

O'Toole again tried to clarify the legal's position.

"I would refer you to the definition for a Commons Area, which is the area in which consumption occurs and the Commons Area is the issue. What the statute states is you have to have a Commons area that is contiguous between two license holders. Legal's opinion is that you lose contiguousness by having a state highway because you cannot have a state highway that is commons area," O'Toole said.

Rice said she disagreed and pointed to the other cities. She said the city has acted too slowly compared to other cities. She suggested learning how other cities managed to include a highway.

"I would like to know how other cities are doing it. It's 2024. This has been around since 2020. We're already late doing this, and now we're finding this black-and-white area that other cities seem to have bypassed somehow," Rice said.

Councillor Dean Girbach said LARA, the state's licensing body, has "passed the buck" with inconsistent application of the districts.

"They say it's up to the community, but when it's time to enforce it, they may nail us on the issue. They don't want to take the responsibility for what they're supposed to do," Girbach said.

Mayor Brian Marl said council will discuss the item again July 1, hopefully with more information from the state and legal staff.

More News from Saline
I'm interested
I disagree with this
This is unverified