By Sally Beauvais
In the city of Marfa, it’s well-understood that you can’t buy a drink at a bar after midnight most nights of the week.
But Presidio County is grappling with its own policies regarding late-night alcohol serving hours. After officials made a controversial decision earlier this year extending them to a venue that’s yet to be built outside of Marfa’s city limits, another business will ask for late hours in Commissioner’s Court this week — for a second time.
This story is part of Marfa Public Radio’s series called Tipping Point — about tourism-driven change, for better or for worse, in West Texas.
Liz Lambert is the owner of El Cosmico, a hip hotel and campground just south of Marfa’s city limits known for its retrofitted trailers and teepees.
She’s going in front of Presidio County officials on Wednesday morning to request extended serving hours for her property. The business doesn’t have a full-time bar on site, but they sell wine and beer out of the lobby.
“Because we’re a hotel primarily, we don’t want to be open after midnight on a regular basis,” Lambert explained.
According to Lambert, the main reason El Cosmico is seeking a late night permit is in order to serve past midnight during the hotel’s annual September music festival, the Trans-Pecos Festival of Music and Love. She says an extra hour or two of bar sales will help them bring in more revenue to offset the expense of putting on the event.
The hotel brought the same exact request in front of the county commission in 2016.
At the time, County Judge Cinderela Guevara — who oversees the Presidio County Commissioners Court — expressed concern over the location of El Cosmico, which is situated on Highway 67 just south of Marfa, where the speed limit is 55 miles per hour. She called the potential late night hours “a huge public safety concern.”
A group of residents worried about noise from the hotel extending later into the night — as well as the potential for drunk driving — showed up to the 2016 meeting to voice their opposition.
The request was unanimously denied.
But earlier this year, the County reversed course and granted late night hours to a Marfa businessman who’s planning to build a venue just west of city limits.
The commission’s decision upset some residents — some who don’t like the idea of local bars serving later, and others who asked why county officials would give the go-ahead to an empty lot that’s also situated on a highway, especially after denying El Cosmico’s 2016 request.
“It would be easier for me, going before the commissioners court, to actually know what the standards are that they decide on for who gets a permit and who doesn’t,” Lambert explained. “It would be really great to actually know that.”
But county officials don’t have a formal set of criteria by which they make these decisions. Before this year, they’d granted only one other business permission to serve alcohol late — Cibolo Creek Ranch, a private resort in a remote part of the county. That was over 15 years ago.
Tim Griffith is a Dallas-based attorney who worked for eight years as legal counsel to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, or TABC.
“It causes me a great deal of concern,” Griffith said of Presidio County’s decision-making process. “It makes me worry that things could be done in an arbitrary manner, that certain persons would get certain privileges others wouldn’t.”
According to Griffith’s interpretation of the TABC statute that governs this issue, unincorporated Presidio County should either have an area-wide ordinance for late night hours, or not at all.
“If the county is doing it on an address-by-address basis, you could have a situation in which someone gets a late hours permit, someone else doesn’t,” Griffith explained. “There are no legal standards, and the action by the commissioners would be arbitrary.”
Arbitrary decision-making by public officials is unlawful as codified under the Texas Administrative Procedure Act.
A spokesperson who currently works for TABC wrote in an email that while this is a local government issue that the agency doesn’t regulate, it’s “generally understood” that counties granting late night hours to businesses start with an area-wide ordinance.
Presidio County Attorney Rod Ponton declined to comment for this story ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, and County Judge Cinderela Guevara did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Commissioner Buddy Knight said he’s not sure yet how the county should proceed.
“It’s somewhat overwhelming — it’s different than what I faced before,” Knight said. He reclaimed his seat on the commissioners court in 2018, after serving in the same role nearly decade ago.
He said back then, the job mostly entailed duties related to county maintenance — taking care of the roads, parks and courthouse.
Now, county leadership is encountering things they haven’t had to deal with before.
“The way Marfa’s changed, you know?” Knight offered. “It’s a different community than it was one year ago!”
Liz Lambert will come in front of the Commissioners Court to ask for late night hours again on behalf of El Cosmico on Wednesday morning, July 10, at the Presidio County Courthouse in Marfa.
Full disclosure: Reporter Sally Beauvais was working at El Cosmico in 2016 when the hotel first asked Presidio County for extended serving hours. In her role, she was not involved in the request. She left the job the same year.