By Elijah McKee
December 14, 2021 (Lemon Grove) — “We are a mom and pop store,” said Alisha Hormiz, as she stood at the podium facing the Lemon Grove City Council. “We want to earn your trust, and to work with you every step of the way,” she pleaded. “So please give us a chance.”
Alisha and her spouse, Peter Hormiz, have run the Discount Market convenience store on the corner of Broadway and Main Street for the past 21 years. Recently, they requested City permission to sell ten percent of their inventory as alcohol, both to help them financially and to listen to their customers’ wishes. The Planning Commission denied their request for the Conditional Use Permit (CUP) they needed — an appeal to the City Council was now their final option to try to win their permit.
The City Council hearing ran for over two hours on December 7. This format of civic proceeding transmutes the City Council into a quasi-judicial body, with the goal of hearing both sides and then voting to reach a verdict. The room was packed full of supporters of the Hormizes’ cause including loyal customers, neighbors, and even their landlord. Those in attendance came with concerns about the treatment of small businesses in Lemon Grove, and with the functioning of their City Council staff.
Making the case for the city was Community Development Manager Noah Alvey. He emphasized a high concentration of alcohol sales in the store’s census tract — five times the state’s recommended amount — as well as an abundance of crime in the area, as the reasons for the Planning Commission’s original decision. He recommended that the city follow suit and uphold the first ruling.
Then, both Alisha Hormiz and her legal representation laid out why they should be granted the permit. They spoke of the precedence of off-sale alcohol CUPs in other highly concentrated parts of Lemon Grove, and argued that the Discount Market actually has lower than average crime rates. They also emphasized the Hormizes’ tenure in the Lemon Grove community as positive influences, stating that they treat customers like family and care for the homeless.
In the end, the City Council upheld the Planning Commission’s decision by a vote of three to one, with Councilmember Liana LeBaron as the sole vote in favor of the Hormizes. Councilmember Jerry Jones presided over the meeting as Mayor Pro Tem and voiced defense of his vote.
“If we approve this, it’ll open up the floodgate. I can think of at least four or five other establishments that will come and be wanting the same things that we would give tonight,” he told the room. “We’d be going back in the things that our General Plan tells us that we want. We’d be going back 30 years.”
Image, right: Sheriff's map showing DUI and drunkenness offenses year to date in Lemon Grove
However, the public in attendance staunchly disagreed with the decision. During public comment on the case leading up to the vote, many stood and voiced their advocacy, including the Hormizes’ landlord Steven Zybelman.
Zybelman told Council how he put faith in the couple as young, ambitious business planners over two decades ago, adding that he feels exactly the same now.
“I see no reason why we should doubt the credibility, the responsibility, and the oath that they would take to govern their business and operate it correctly and legally,” he testified. “I honestly believe that these people deserve to have this license,” he continued. “I ask you to consider their application and offer them your blessing as well.”
Ten other individuals spoke in favor of the Hormizes, from a retired resident who relies on the safe store within walking distance, to a mother and two sons who travel miles out of their way to shop at the store because of the quality of care they receive, and to community members who want the Hormizes’ business to benefit from new housing developments in their area. Many stressed the Hormizes’ willingness to change their hours or restrict the type of sales.
“I would much prefer to support the Discount Market and Peter and Alisha’s family versus the big corporation chain markets like 7/11,” said Jessyka Heredia, a Lemon Grove resident and member of San Diego’s Business Improvement Districts.
“I’m finding a pattern in Lemon Grove when it comes to small mom and pops versus big corporations,” she continued. “It seems it’s easy for big corporations like 7/11, which will get approved for the same license just one block away on the same street. Why do all the corporations get all the privileges?”
Still, no CUP was granted for the Discount Market.
“It’s not easy, it’s not personal, but we’re here making policy,” said Mayor Pro Tem Jones. “We have to make the findings within the regulations that have been written. You can’t make regulations one business at a time. The bottom line is that we have an over-concentration in the city.”
Jones also addressed the treatment of small businesses. He admitted some truth to the concerns, but countered by citing a Walgreens that was denied an off-sale alcohol permit just like the Hormizes.
“There’s been some allegations that we treat big boxes differently than the small stores,” he said, “and I suppose there may be something to that. But I don’t think it’s as common as people want to think.”
CONFLICT SPARKED DURING PUBLIC COMMENT
Residents at the meeting were not only concerned with these potentially unequal policy practices. Some also expressed unease with the City Council’s communication style, both between themselves and with the public.
In their comments, many cited what they observe to be disrespect, lack of collaboration, and overall tension amongst the City Councilmembers and the Mayor. They called for a spectrum of changes, from better reporting to the public about staff’s third party meetings, to an internal tax audit.
Yet at the meeting, the public’s qualms with their City Council only grew when evident tensions boiled over during the public comment of resident Chris Williams. Back to back recesses were called by Mayor Pro Tem Jones — on the second he threatened to clear the room.
During his allotted three minutes, Williams was responding to two previous speakers from regional non-profits, who told Councilmembers that alcohol increases crime and hurts children — the only public opinions against the Hormizes voiced at the hearing. The second of the two used Casa de Oro, a neighborhood adjacent to Lemon Grove, in a comparison with La Jolla to illustrate the point.
Williams took issue with this comparison. “La Jolla has resources,” he refuted. “If we want to make sure that crime is down we should look at giving the resources to the community. Access to alcohol is just one very small reason for why crime is up.”
“I think it’s important that we understand that small business is the backbone of America,” he continued. “The city has gotten used to finding reasons to say no, finding reasons to stonewall businesses from opening, and that increases crime. Vacant buildings are proven to increase crime.”
Towards the end of delivering this comment, Williams felt that Mayor Pro Tem Jones was not giving his full attention, and Williams requested that he do so. This request incited both men to argue and eventually raise their voices, until Jones called the first recess. Hear audio.
When the meeting resumed, Williams requested that he be allotted his remaining time, which he estimated to be 15 seconds. Jones moved to close the public comment portion of the hearing, to which Williams objected.
“How come I don’t get my time? Because I say something he doesn’t like?” asked Williams, holding the microphone.
At Jones’s order, law enforcement present at the meeting confiscated the microphone from Williams. Councilmember Lebaron asked Councilmember Mendoza why they could not hear the rest of the comment.
“I am tired of being yelled at by you Mr. Williams. I’ve listened to you enough,” Mendoza replied.
As the roll was then counted to close public comment, Councilmember LeBaron leaned into her microphone.
I believe it is a huge abuse of your power, Councilmembers, to censor the public,” she said.
This prompted members of the public to cry out, “You cut him off!” Jones then called the second recess and threatened to clear the room if he had to call a third. Hear audio.
Afterwards, the public hearing resumed and was carried out to completion, with final questioning and deliberations yielding the three-to-one verdict.
The City Council functioned lawfully when denying the Hormizes appeal, not straying from the general plan nor overriding colleagues on the Planning Commission, though the Council had the power to grant an exception. But the partnership that composes civic life between people and members of government wore thin, fueling the continued frustration of Lemon Grove’s public.