The owner of Busby's bar on Santa Monica Boulevard wanted to add a pool and spa but were denied by the Planning Commission. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SANTA MONICA BLVD — A bar owner’s plan to add an outdoor lounge with a pool and spa to his business was denied by the Planning Commission this week because of noise and parking concerns.

The denial has added to existing tension between City Hall and some bar owners who operate businesses next to residential neighborhoods and could lead to a zoning code change that would prevent new bars from cropping up next to homes.

The owners of sports bar Busby’s West had asked to add about 1,400 square feet to accommodate the pool and outdoor dining area, but the commission voted Wednesday night to deny the application after residents who live near the property at 3110 Santa Monica Blvd. complained the bar is a nuisance.

The commissioners who opposed the project cited concerns the renovation would increase the noise level at the bar and exacerbate parking scarcity in the neighborhood.

The proposed expansion would have resulted in an “intensification of use in a residential area with significant negative consequences to the residents,” said Planning Commissioner Jay Johnson, who made the motion to deny the application.

In turning down the expansion plan the commission followed a recommendation by City Hall’s planning department.

Busby’s co-owner Paul Boettcher said he was frustrated by the commission’s decision but won’t appeal it to the City Council.

“We’re only considered a nuisance by a minority of malcontents … but yet we were painted as a nuisance, which is completely false,” he said.

He said he employs more security guards than he’s required to and keeps the noise level in check.

In a letter to the Planning Commission sent on Friday, Boettcher and his business partner, Donal Tavey, said their expansion proposal was an effort to return the business to profitability.

“The current economic climate, coupled with increased competition has eroded our business, forcing us to consider a change. Our biggest liability was the lack of an outside space,” the letter said.

The vote came after the panel heard testimony from residents for and against the proposal.

Busby’s patrons, some of whom live next to the bar, defended the establishment as a well-run business. But the commission also heard from neighbors upset about rowdy late-night crowds marauding through the neighborhood, beer bottles left on lawns and bad drivers in alleys — all offenses allegedly committed by the bar’s customers.

Busby’s opponents were pleased with the result Wednesday.

“It’s the first time in recent memory that we had 20 members in the audience stand up and applaud and cheer a decision by the Planning Commission,” Johnson said.

In their letter, Boettcher and Tavey said they were disappointed the commission didn’t accept their noise mitigation proposals. They also said the commission was too sensitive to a small group of critics with unreasonable expectations.

“When one chooses to live half a block off Santa Monica Boulevard or indeed, directly facing it, particularly in an entertainment zone, one cannot expect a bucolic environment,” they wrote.

The Busby’s dispute underscores a broader, ongoing conflict between residents upset over impacts from bars and owners who say they’re obeying city laws and operating responsibly.

In the past year, The Parlor and South, both on Wilshire Boulevard, also have garnered complaints from neighborhood groups about raucous patrons and illegal parking.

Johnson said the issues with all three of the bars stem in part from vagueness in the city’s zoning code that the Planning Commission is set to address this year.

All three bars are allowed to operate near residential neighborhoods because they’re classified as restaurants. In effect, though, each establishment operates more like a sports bar, staying open until 2 a.m. and earning a large percentage of revenue from alcohol sales. City Hall is powerless to object to the late night hours and bar-like atmospheres because under existing zoning code, there’s no difference between a restaurant and a sports bar.

Johnson said the commission will consider updating the zoning law to include a category for sports bars this year, though the item has not yet been agendized. A proposed change would presumably limit sports bars to areas that are farther removed from residential neighborhoods. An updated zoning law wouldn’t affect existing sports bars.

After the commission’s decision on Wednesday, Boettcher said he felt misled by City Hall. He said he spent a year and a half and $50,000 planning the expansion and documenting his bar’s compliance with city code.

In seeking the planning commission’s support for the proposed Busby’s expansion, Boettcher said he was offering to give City Hall more control over the bar’s operations. Because Busby’s has a “grandfathered” liquor license, City Hall has little say over how the bar runs. But if the commission had approved the expansion plan, it could have implemented new rules, like requiring a periodic review of how Busby’s runs.

He said in effect he and his business partner were inviting City Hall in to scrutinize the bar’s operations.

“We’re willing to take that risk because … we know as operators we’re not going to screw up,” he said.

Hank Koning, the commission’s chairman, opposed the motion to deny the application, saying he favored an approach that would allow the expansion but limit the bar’s hours and activities to address neighbors’ noise concerns.

“We have to protect the residential community and it just felt to me that in denying this, we weren’t doing that,” he said.

Though Boettcher said he appreciated Koning’s willingness to work on a resolution that would allow the expansion, he said closing the bar early each night was not an option. If he shut down at midnight instead of 2 a.m., he said he’d be out of business within six months.

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