COVINGTON -- Commissioners are continuing to hash out the details of an ordinance regulating sales of alcoholic beverages in preparation for a public referendum.
The BOC held a work session Monday night to discuss the proposed ordinance. A sticking point continues to be the distance requirements. State law requires that establishments serving or selling alcohol be a minimum of 300 feet from certain facilities,including schools, churches, alcohol addiction treatment centers and housing authorities and 200 feet from a public library.
Commissioner Mort Ewing said he wants the county ordinance to be more stringent, upping that minimum to 500 feet. Ewing said that, "Newton County has a history of having regulations a little more stringent than those in other locations."
Commissioner Nancy Schulz said the impact of that could deter high-quality restaurants from locating here.
"If we leave it at 500 we may be substantially different from other jurisdictions and restaurants may choose not to locate here because standards may be too stringent," Schulz said.
Schulz added that she consulted with local resident Denny Dobbs, a former state legislator who in the 1980s helped craft the original state legislation. Dobbs had proposed that minimum distance requirements be 1,000 feet. After meeting with opposition, Dobbs measured off the distance between the Rock Store in Almon and a nearby church and determined that anything above 300 feet would be prohibitive for businesses wishing to sell alcohol.
Schulz said that information should be considered given that the Almon community is one of the designated overlays where liquor by the drink sales will be allowed.
Restaurants and hotels/motels wishing to sell alcoholic beverages will be required to be zoned neighborhood commercial, highway commercial or general commercial and located in overlay districts. Currently, there are two established overlays available: Almon/Crowell Road Overlay District and the Town Center Overlay in the multi-county mixed use business park Stanton Springs. Overlays are also in the works for several other sites, including the Salem Road corridor.
Commissioners also discussed licensing fees. Commissioner Tim Fleming said he has received complaints regarding the proposed fee amounts, particularly the $400 fee for a background check by the Sheriff's Office. That amount was recommended by Sheriff Ezell Brown in a February memo to the board.
The intent of fees is to cover administrative costs and not to generate revenue, said Jenny Carter with the County Attorney's Office. The fees were calculated based on the time and costs to the Sheriff's Office and the Department of Development Services. There is no differentiation on beer and wine fees and liquor fees.
"We could not come up with any rationale to have a cheaper beer and wine license because the work is still the same," she said.
As currently proposed, an on-premises consumption license would cost $5,650, both for the original license and for renewal. That includes administrative cost for the Department of Development Services, the Sheriff's Office and the cost of the actual license.
In addition, a pouring permit would cost $125 for the original and $100 for renewal. Additional fees would include $40 for fingerprinting and a $250 appeal fee.
Package sale license fees would be upped by $150 to $1,300 for the original license and renewal.
County Manager John Middleton said restaurant owners have been willing to be annexed in a municipality in order to be able to serve alcohol.
"We've seen that over and over. People are willing to pay $10,000 to $15,000 more in property taxes for the privilege in addition to $3,000 to $4,000 for a liquor license," he said.
Schulz said that while municipal licenses are cheaper, business owners in the cities also are taxed twice, by the city and the county.
"I think our intent is to bring in those high-quality restaurants. They are going to serve both kinds of alcohol. They are not going to limit sales to just beer and wine," she said regarding charging the same for beer and wine and liquor licenses.
The county is considering three separate issues: alcohol package sales on Sundays; sales by the drink; and sales by the drink on Sundays. A referendum in July would require a vote by the commissioners by April 3. Since they have indicated a desire to have two public hearings prior to approval of the ordinance, that likely won't be possible, said Chairman Kathy Morgan. To make it on the General Election ballot in November, approval is required by June 5.