While many California cities are banning the sale of beer and wine at gas station mini-marts, most South Bay cities are relying on existing ordinances to control a trend that police and city officials fear could lead to a saturation of such businesses.
In the South Bay, only Gardena and Torrance have taken steps recently to prevent motorists from buying a cold six-pack or a bottle of wine where they fill their gas tanks.
The Gardena City Council last month directed its staff to draft an ordinance banning the sale of beer and wine at gas stations, and another that would gradually phase out those sales at existing stations. The ordinances are expected back before the council around Jan. 1, City Manager Kenneth Landau said.
In Torrance, the City Council imposed a 45-day moratorium last week on permits for new businesses to sell packaged alcohol, while the city staff studies the situation.
Three counties and about 40 cities statewide have passed similar ordinances, according to an aide for Assemblywoman Jean M. Duffy (D-Citrus Heights), who has introduced a bill that would prevent the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Department from issuing or renewing liquor licenses to businesses that sell gasoline. The Assembly Governmental Organization Committee is expected to vote on Duffy's bill in January.
The movement to ban alcohol sales at gas stations is a response to a trend by oil companies to convert empty service bays at former full-service stations into mini-marts with self-service pumps. Atlantic Richfield, for example, has converted 400 stations in the western United States to self-serve mini-marts.
Duffy and others argue that allowing alcohol sales at service stations encourages people to drink and drive, and they claim that a proliferation of places for buying alcohol will increase crime, including robberies and the sale of alcohol to minors.
They point to a recent study in the cities of Davis and Berkeley by the Prevention Research Center in Berkeley, a federally funded group studying alcohol abuse, that found that 15% to 30% of the stations' customers bought both gasoline and beer or wine.
But Atlantic Richfield said it conducted a study that found that fewer than 3% of its customers nationwide buy alcohol and gasoline at the same time. Soft drinks and candy are the best sellers, the study said.
Gardena and Torrance police say there are no statistics that directly link drunk driving to alcohol sales at gas stations.
However, in both cities the issue was raised by police and city officials who fear potential problems. There has been no public outcry in the two cities to ban alcohol sales at gas stations, they acknowledged.
Oil company spokesmen say the lack of evidence refutes claims that the sale of alcoholic beverages at gas stations increases crime or encourages drunk driving more than sales at other outlets.
"It would be illogical and discriminatory to prohibit such sales at service stations while permitting them at convenience stores, supermarkets, delicatessens and liquor stores," said Jim Carbonetti, a spokesman for Mobil Oil in Los Angeles, which operates snack shops that sell beer and wine at many of its stations.
In Torrance, police said the public is opposed to more alcohol outlets, but Rick Blake, an attorney representing a firm that wants to open a gas station mini-market at Crenshaw Boulevard and Carson Street, presented a petition to the City Council with 76 signatures from nearby residents who said the store would improve rather than harm the community.
Grace Leise, a spokeswoman for California Target Enterprises of Downey, the firm that wants to open the mini-mart in Torrance, argues that gas stations are safer than other stores that sell alcohol because they discourage loitering and unnecessary parking and are better lit.
She said beer and wine sales are vital to the success of mini-marts because the profit margin is higher than on other products. A six-pack of beer, which costs about $3, yields more profit than the sale of two cartons of cigarettes, which cost about $10 each, or 10 bags of potato chips, which run about 40 cents each, she said.
Other Outlets Nearby
Torrance Police Chief Donald Nash is opposed to California Target's plan because the site is next to a liquor store and across the street from a Chevron gas station where beer and wine sales were only recently approved. A third gas station at the intersection withdrew its application to sell alcoholic beverages about a year ago but the city expects it to be resubmitted.
Despite the lack of evidence, police insist that there is a correlation between an increase in the sale of alcohol and an increase in crime.
"It's hard to come up with statistics," said Gardena City Atty. Michael Karger, "but we believe there are crime-related problems, or the potential for problems at these gas stations."