County considering by-the-drink sales

MANSFIELD -- County commissioners agreed to pursue an ordinance that would allow and regulate beer/wine and liquor by-the-drink sales at a retreat held last weekend at Burge Plantation in Mansfield.

Some commissioners said allowing by the drink sales would boost economic development and sales taxes, though one said it would likely cost the county more money in public safety expenses.

The county's current alcohol ordinance allows retail package sales of beer and wine but not liquor. By-the- drink sales are not allowed.

The county could amend its ordinance to allow beer and wine by-the-drink sales without holding a referendum; however, liquor would require a referendum, said Jenny Carter with the County Attorney's Office. The referendum could be held during the July 20 general primary or the Nov. 2 general election.

If that's something the board wants to pursue, it would need to address licensing and regulation of sales, Carter said, noting that it would have broad discretion in terms of location and timing when sales could take place, as long as state law is followed. The board could restrict sales to certain locations, such as development nodes or certain zoning classifications, she said.

It could also require that establishments make a certain percentage of money from food sales or that food be served every hour establishments are open.

Regulations could even address the attire of employees, and prohibit pool tables, darts and other games in establishments that serve alcohol, Carter said.

County Attorney Tommy Craig said the board will likely want to hash out all those details before the issue goes on the ballot, in the interest of giving the public all the facts so they can decide whether to support it.

"There could be a lot of resistance, particularly from churches, if it looks like it's going to be the Wild West," Craig said.

Chairman Kathy Morgan said she believes by the drink sales could help with economic development, but that she would like to see sales restricted to certain locations.

"I don't want anybody to get a place on some corner to rent it out for some honky tonk. That's not my intention," she said.

Commissioner Tim Fleming agreed it could boost economic development and sales taxes. He said he knew of one developer with plans to develop two restaurants and a hotel in Newton, who opted not to because alcohol sales are not allowed.

Commissioner Nancy Schulz said the Salem Road and Almon Corridor areas are of particular concern because several businesses targeting those areas pulled out due to the restrictions on alcohol.

"We wound up with fast food places instead of dining establishments," she said.

At least two landowners have told her they want to be annexed into the city of Porterdale, where beer and wine and liquor by the drink sales are allowed, she said.

County Attorney Craig said he'd also talked with a lawyer for Kroger at Salem Road who that said he was aware of two chain businesses interested in locating there if alcohol sales were allowed.

Schulz had her business, The Oaks Course, annexed into Porterdale several years ago because she said she was losing clients due to the prohibition on alcohol sales.

Currently, Schulz serves beer and wine at her business, but said she's likely expanding to liquor soon because of customer demand. She said only allowing beer and wine by the drink won't be enough to satisfy the demands of those who are asking for such sales: liquor will also be needed, she said.

Schulz said any ordinance should have strict guidelines requiring businesses to police themselves. At The Oaks, for example, she said a security fee is added to banquet costs to pay for security services.

Commissioners Mort Ewing and J.C. Henderson said they are opposed. Ewing said a referendum was held in the late '90s and voters overwhelmingly voted it down. The board revisited the issue several years later and was opposed to holding another referendum, he said.

At that time, the sheriff said for every $1 collected from having by the drink sales, it would cost the county $2 to $3 from a public safety standpoint, Ewing said.

"I don't want anybody thinking we're doing this and the county is going to benefit financially from it," he said.

The board authorized the County Attorney's Office to move forward with researching the issue and drafting an ordinance.

Ewing requested a cost analysis of what by the drink sales would cost the county versus what it would bring in as well as information on the benefits seen by local municipalities from passing by the drink ordinances.

"My personal opinion is that we err on the side of caution, and don't rush into anything," Morgan said, adding that if the board wants to pursue it this year, she would prefer it be on the November ballot.

Commissioners also agreed to try to strengthen the county's adult entertainment ordinance, regardless of what happens with the by the drink proposal.

Carter said it's been 15 or 20 years since that ordinance was looked at by the board.

"If the board chooses to put liquor by the drink on the ballot, it needs to look at that to avoid any problems that go hand in hand with alcohol sales," she said.

The current ordinance allows adult entertainment establishments in industrial areas with a conditional use permit, she said. The county cannot ban adult entertainment establishments altogether, as they are protected under the First Amendment, although location and other aspects can be regulated, Carter said.

"Whatever we can do to strengthen the ordinance, I would ask you to do it," Ewing said.