The Rio Arribba County Commission held a hearing during its Sept. 26 meeting to determine if Café Sierra Negra owner Melodie Milhoan could obtain a beer and wine license for her cafe.
A collection of letters came in to the County protesting the issuance of the license. Complaints ranged from there already being three establishments in the area with liquor licensees to its location directly off Highway 84. During the Commission meeting, Commissioners were presented with the letters opposing the license beforehand, and then during the hearing, Planning and Zoning director Russell Naranjo presented the letters in favor of the license.
Milhoan said she expected business from tourists to drop off during the winter, so adding beer and wine to the menu would increase the options for locals to come and stay for dinner“I’ve had so many customers request beer or a glass of wine when ordering,” Milhoan said. “So far I have not been able to provide them with that.”
Milhoan said the previous establishment at her building, DB’s Kitchen, had a license and she planned to host events like film showings with dinner.
Customers and employees came to the hearing to testify on Milhoan’s behalf.
County Commissioner Christine Bustos said she wasn’t generally in favor of increasing the amount of alcohol available in the county.
Commissioner Moises Morales said he lost a friend at the intersection where Cafe Sierra Negra is located.
Commissioner James Martinez declined to comment.
The license passed 2 to 1, with commissioners Morales and Bustos voting in favor of issuing the license.
Naranjo said that in his experience, beer and wine license approval was usually a procedural process where the county evaluated the process to apply for to make sure the license was done properly.
“Normally these things are very routine, usually comes with the territory, if you’re not within the proximity of schools and churches,” Naranjo said.
If the County declined Milhoan’s approval, Naranjo said that Milhoan’s next recourse would be to sue the County through District Court.
During the hearing, County Manager Lucia Sanchez recommended allowing the license with the stipulation that the cafe use the RAC STOP merchant training program. Sanchez said that she felt during the hearing that Milhoan was agreeable to anything that would help protect the community.
“The training program focuses on providing servers skills to prevent excessive alcohol consumption,” Sanchez said. “I did hear the testimony from the person who works at the restaurant and she doesn’t drink. If you don’t drink, how can you tell if someone is past the point?”
Sanchez said that of the 57 establishments in the County only two have taken the RAC STOP merchant education program, Chili’s and Tropicana.
“Sadly, we can’t provide a safe and healthy environment when individuals do not find the importance of trained staff to now follow the enforcement of the New Mexico Liquor Control Act,” Sanchez said.
Letters to the County Commission about the license expressed concern with the number of establishments in the area and its location on a two-lane highway as well as a lack of postings about the upcoming license.
There were two postings about the license during the first two weeks of September in the Rio Grande SUN. Naranjo said this was the requirement by state law.
Milhoan said she also posted a notice in the store’s window about the beer and wine license while it was pending approval.
Multiple letters in opposition to the license were from a Cynthia Valdez who said she was unable to attend the meeting due to a medical appointment on the same date.
“Screwed. I felt screwed,” Valdez said.
In an email, Valdez said she wanted to establish that she didn’t have any issue with the Cafe or Milhoan and that her primary concern was with the safety of the road and that four vendors was too many on that one strip of highway that makes up Abiquiú.
“That road is just dangerous is my point. You don't need to be drinking,” Valdez said.
In a phone conversation, Valdez said someone went to speak on her behalf at the County Commission meeting but during the time to speak no one spoke in opposition. However, during the entire process, Valdez said she felt things were done improperly, such as not having a Planning and Zoning Board hearing and how the Commissioners went about the hearing.
Valdez said she felt neither Commissioner Bustos nor Morales asked useful questions.
“James, he’s the only one with his head on straight. He asked the right question about how many establishments there are,” Valdez said.
Valdez said she was especially disappointed in her Commissioner Moises Morales, who she said she counted as a personal friend but she hadn’t spoken to him since the meeting. And she said she felt the County was putting economic development ahead of safety.
“Lucia feels that Abiquiú is a tourist hotspot. Is a six dollar glass of wine really going to make money?” Valdez said.