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Sapphire Right-of-Way

The entrance to the Placer building, left, and a staircase leading to the Sapphire Bar, to the right, as viewed from the North Jackson Street sidewalk. 

The Helena City Commission will decide Monday night whether to allow a Last Chance Gulch bar to continue using a leased public right-of-way for alcohol consumption after complaints about its patrons’ conduct.

The commission declared its intent Dec. 17 to revoke the city’s agreement with Clemow Family Trust to use the right-of-way between the Securities Building at 101 N. Last Chance Gulch and the Placer building. The trust leases part of the Securities Building to the Sapphire Bar, which uses the right-of-way for patio seating.

The agreement hinges on conditions that the right-of-way is kept clean and that its use does not “inhibit or interfere with the peaceable, safe use of, or access to adjacent properties.”

City Attorney Thomas Jodoin wrote in a Dec. 6 memo of “numerous complaints” from residents near the bar, “bottles, cups, cigarettes, and vomit” littering the area and “loud, disorderly conduct, and smoke to the detriment of adjacent property owners.”

If the agreement is revoked, Sapphire patrons will be unable to bring open alcohol containers into the area outside the bar’s right-of-way entrance.

Sapphire Bar Manager Heath Mason said revoking the agreement would do "absolutely nothing" to solve the problem and could exacerbate it.

“I think it’d be a lot better thing to just try to work together,” Mason told the commission Dec. 17. “And I know you can’t make everybody happy, I know we would like to, but moving forward I think it would be better to communicate and get some more meetings with Placer and the city attorney and the city departments all in the same room.”

Mason told the commission he had never been approached by Placer residents or Condominium Association members about any problems. He added that the bar instituted new measures after meeting with city staff, including Jodoin, earlier in 2018.

“We had some discussions about it, we implemented some things … as far as the trash and some other things that they were having issues with,” Mason said. “That’s the last time I ever heard from anybody with the city was Feb. 8. I never heard ‘this isn’t working,’ I never heard anything like that until I got a letter saying they want to revoke the status of the right-of-way use agreement.’”

Mason agreed to be interviewed for this story, but did not return a phone call Friday.

Meanwhile, Placer residents hope the agreement’s end will alleviate the noise they say bar patrons cause at late hours, especially on weekends.

Three Placer residents testified in favor of ending the agreement, including Ed Stevenson of the Placer Condominium Association.

“Since the opening of the Sapphire Bar immediately adjacent to our building, the quality of life in the Placer and … downtown Helena in general has taken a significant turn downwards, in our opinion,” Stevenson said Dec. 17.

Stevenson, a Placer resident since 2010, said his building will “no longer be a viable option” for Helenans hoping to live downtown if no action is taken against the bar.

“There’s been attempts on our part to ameliorate the situation,” Stevenson said this week, “and those have seemed to result in no change in the noise." He added that it's "partly the noise, but it’s cigarette butts and broken bottles, it’s the vomit. It’s not all over the place every night, but it is recurrent.”

Stevenson said Placer residents have previously talked with Sapphire bartenders to little avail.

“I think they talked with the owner, and the talk at that point (became) ‘Oh, yeah, we recognize the problem, we’ll do some things to change that,’” Stevenson said. “And, you know, realistically, the only thing that’s changed it has been subzero weather.”

Another Placer resident told the commission Dec. 17 that the DoubleTree by Hilton, directly across the walking mall from the right-of-way, has compensated guests who complain of noise in the streets below.

DoubleTree general manager John Lytle said Wednesday that the hotel has done so on “multiple occasions.”

Sgt. Danny David of the Helena Police Department told the commission that the department put in 60 hours of patrol around the Sapphire Bar last summer and received 149 calls for service there in 2018 as of the Dec. 17 hearing.

Eighty calls stemmed from noise complaints, of which 62 were anonymous. David said the call volume for non-noise complaints was “on par” with other downtown bars.

On the last patrol, David said, officers observed the bar’s activity undercover.

“It was no different than any other bar that I’ve ever been around,” David said of the last patrol, offering to show body camera video to the commission.

The Helena City Commission convenes in the commission chambers at 6 p.m. Monday on the third floor of the City/County Building at 316 N. Park Ave. in Helena.

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Local and State Government Reporter

State and local government reporter for the Independent Record.

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