There's no obvious "ground zero" for alcohol sales or consumption in Ukiah, no skid row scene replete with liquor stores and run down bars. In fact, the landscape of this rural Mendocino County hub looks, for the most part, pretty dry.
And yet each convenience store, restaurant, pub, wine bar, gas station and pharmacy has led to a unique situation here: Mendocino County is drowning in alcohol.
The number of alcohol outlets per capita in Mendocino is more than twice that of the state, according to a public health impact assessment released to the public last week. There are currently 48 outlets per 10,000 residents, compared to 21 for the state.
With a total of 168 off-sale alcohol outlets, Mendocino's off-sales rate is 4.8 outlets per 2,500 residents, compared to 1.9 for the state. When compared to six other rural counties, including Lake, Mendocino County has the highest off-sale outlet density. Lake County has 3.6 off-sale outlets per 2,500 residents.
The impact assessment shows a correlation between the density of alcohol outlets and arrests for aggravated assault, drinking and driving and underage drinking.
"We're not claiming causation, but there is a link," said Linda Helland, program manager for the Mendocino County Public Health Services prevention and planning unit.
"We know that when they make roads, people drive on them," she said.
The health department conducted its health impact assessment between May 2010 and August 2010. The initial findings were shared with local officials in 2011 and led to the Ukiah planning commission prohibiting new off-sale alcohol outlets in the downtown area. Last year the Ukiah city council adopted the downtown prohibition as an amendment to the city code.
The county's high alcohol density has it running afoul with the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which sets guidelines for acceptable levels of outlets per population.
ABC rules state that the maximum number of outlets should not exceed one off-sale outlet per 2,500 inhabitants. The impact assessment found that, to be in compliance with ABC rules, Mendocino's 168 off-sale outlets would have to be reduced to 35.
ABC officials are required to refuse alcohol license applications in census tracts that have too many outlets, but applicants can get around the county's current moratorium if they obtain a letter of "Public Convenience or Necessity" from local officials, such as local law enforcement.
Helland said last week that such letters are too easily obtained, though the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office rejected that claim.
Back in 2006, educators at Grace Hudson Elementary School on Jefferson Lane and South State Street objected to a proposed alcohol vendor's license for a market and deli around the corner on South State Street. Though the license application was denied by the state ABC, it was appealed and ultimately approved by local officials.
"Once it was over, I just said, 'That's it, there's just no point in ever protesting,'" said Ruth Van Antwerp, a Grace Hudson teacher. "We held them off for well over a year. But we lost in the end and spent a bunch of money on attorneys."
Antwerp said the market and deli is too close to the school and next door to a bar called The Water Trough, which has been there longer than the school.
She said the school was designed with an open campus, where local residents can use the fields and playground as if they were a park. She said there has been an increase in the number of young people drinking alcohol and using drugs on school grounds at night.