Fearing Liability, Saline City Council Keeps Social District on the South Side


Saline Main Street proposed a social district expanded to the north side of Michigan Avenue.

If there's a social district in downtown Saline, it will only be on the south side of Michigan Avenue.

Above is a map of the south side social district.

On May 20, Saline City Council approved a social district for the south side of downtown. The district would allow patrons to buy alcoholic beverages at establishments like Mac's Acadian Seafood Shack, Salt Springs Brewery, Brecon Grille, and soon-to-open DropTop Pizza and then walk along designated sidewalks on Michigan Avenue and Ann Arbor Street, sipping their beverages. The district would be expanded to include the parking lot that hosts the Farmers Market and Salty Summer Sounds concert series on Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings. But when the owners of Mac's, Salt and Becon Grille learned Dan's Downtown Tavern would not be included because it was on the north side of Michigan Avenue, they said they would not participate.

City Council discussed the issue at the July 1 meeting, and after an update from City Manager Colleen O'Toole, Cith Councillor Nicole Rice motioned to adopt a social district including Dan's Downtown Tavern and the north side of Michigan Avenue. The motion died at the table due to a lack of a seconder.

O'Toole checked with city attorneys on several questions that have arisen.

The critical issue is that the city opposes having the district cross Michigan Avenue. O'Toole previously explained that the social district's Commons Area cannot cross US-12 because people are prohibited from consuming alcohol on a highway. Since the Commons Area is defined as a place where people can consume alcohol, the highway cannot be part of the Commons Area. Rice and Saline Main Street, the downtown revitalization organization, challenged that thinking, and pointed to Clinton, Chelsea, and Howell, communities with districts that cross highways. O'Toole said that after further dialogue with attorneys, nothing has changed.

"To date, our legal counsel has affirmed the interpretation that Michigan Avenue cannot be a part of a Commons Area to establish a contiguous area," O'Toole said.

O'Toole said she asked the city attorneys if the city risked compromising an immunity claim if an incident were to happen. 

"Legal did clarify that individual government employees or officials are not immune from acts that are intentioned or considered grossly negligent. In their interpretation, individuals who authorize the carrying of open intoxicants across Michigan Avenue can expect that it would be consumed on or near the roadway. Any injuries that result could be argued to be a result of gross negligence and those authorizing individuals could become personally liable," O'Toole said.

O'Toole also asked whether the city could mitigate the issue with signage indicating that consuming alcohol was not permitted when crossing Michigan Avenue.

"Legal suggested this may be a dubious claim as the body is otherwise fully aware of the intent of the district and signage would offer little protection," O'Toole said.

Two Licenses

Dan's owns two liquor licenses. Some wondered if this would allow Dan's to create a social district district between contiguous licenses. O'Toole checked with the city attorneys.

"Having two liquor licenses does not constitute two businesses for the purposes of establishing a contiguous social district,' O'Toole said.

O'Toole said staff continues to recommend the city not move forward with any plan to expand the district.

"I view this matter as very similar to what council was asked to consider regarding fire code compliance and the closer of South Ann Arbor Street," O'Toole said. "It's a matter of legality and liability."

O'Toole said it was time for closure on the issue.

"The city has spent considerable staff time and resources reviewing the issue and it's probably not prudent to continue to expend staff time and legal resources and time away from other projects to continue debating it, though I respect deeply the desire to want to find a solution or alternative," O'Toole said.

Council Remarks

Councillor Rice pointed to what other communities are doing.

"I believe that other cities have set a precedent to move forward," Rice said.

Councillor Jenn Harmount said when she learned no signage would relieve the city and council of its risks, she would not be in favor of having the district cross Michigan Avenue.

Councillor Dean Girbach said he didn't want to put the city at risk. Nor did he want to put his own assets at risk.

"It's no different than the fire department concerns on South Ann Arbor Street. We could potentially void our government immunity," Girbach said. "And although I love my community, I'm not willing to forgo my home, my properties and my assets for something for a property owner's responsibility or for a business thing."

Girbach said it was time to get the district started.

"If something changes on North Ann Arbor Street, we'll move forward," Girbach said.

Councillor Janet Dillon agreed and said it was time to focus on getting the first district up and running.

"Being at the music series Thursday night, there were a lot of people that were disappointed they weren't able to have drinks at the music series," Dillon said. "We can do that right now and then create a secondary social district when somebody on the north side creates an area over there."

Councillor Jack Ceo said he agreed with colleagues that "there's no sense flying in the face of the legal opinions that we get."

There was a bit of confusion over the first motion by Councillor Rice, so she offered a new motion to expand the downtown Saline social district.

The motion was not seconded.


Prior to the meeting, comments from Karen Carrigan, owner of Carrigan Cafe, and Bill and Lindsay Gibson, owner of Fine Print Bookshop, were read into the public record. Both urged council to support the expansion of the district.

In the public comment portion of the meeting at the end of the meeting, Saline Main Street Director Mary Dettling thanked council for its work and also asked questions.

"What scenarios would you be more liable in this particular case of crossing Michigan with a drink in your hand then you would in any other scenario?" Dettling asked. "The thing I want to say is sometimes healthy debate is part of healthy government, so I appreciate that."

Ron Schofield, one of the owners of Salt Springs Brewery, was disappointed by the interpretation that the district can't cross Michigan Avenue.

"If you do put a social district on the north side, you still can't cross Michigan Avenue. So what have you done? You've done nothing. The reason (Brecon Grille owner Paul Geragosian) put out the missive about 'it's all or nothing' was to try to show solidarity, which is what the city's been trying to do - to get north and south together, to quit using Michigan Avenue as an excuse to divide the community. And now everybody up here reinforces the division between the north and south sides."

Schofield asked how it would be different from somebody carrying a beer growler across the street.

Ron said there would be a discussion among the south-side businesses about whether to proceed with the social district plans.

"But I just see a timid council that is going to fall back on what-ifs rather than taking a step forward and finding a way to solve the problem," he said.

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Council is not using 12 to divide north and south, they are protecting the city. They did not create the laws prohibiting crossing the street, and they’ve done due diligence to find a solution. City council is not beholden to just the businesses in this town; if the city could get sued that could be disastrous. I think they acted prudently in this situation.

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