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Greene County preparing for mixed drink sales


By Brenda Monty
The Standard Laconic

Thursday, May 17, 2018

SNOW HILL — Asked whether they approved of selling mixed drinks at local venues, Greene County voters issued a two word response: Bottoms up.

The majority of county voters who took to the polls for the May 9 primary election cast votes in favor of allowing mixed alcoholic beverages to be sold in restaurants, hotels, private clubs, convention centers and community theaters.

Uncanvassed results show 1,753 favored the measure while 1,416 voted against it. 

Supporters of the measure said legalizing the sale of mixed drinks would enhance economic development and tax revenue.

But prior to the election, several prominent members of the Greene County community spoke out against the mixed beverage referendum. The Hookerton Board of Commissioners went on record as opposing its passage and the town’s mayor, Bobby Taylor, co-sponsored a “Safety First” rally, urging local residents to vote against it.

Local pastors also spoke against the referendum.

“Money is not that important to me that I am willing to sacrifice our children on the altar of alcohol in order to have a few more dollars in our county,” said Tony Lee, the pastor of Snow Hill Pentecostal Church.

Voters, however, disagreed with such pronouncements.

In fact, the referendum passed in all but four of the county’s 10 precincts. Voting it down were Castoria, 64-70; Maury, 153-188; Shine, 110-116; and Sugg, 92-101.

It passed in the Arba precinct, 110-70; Bear Garden 80-66; Bull Head, 81-49; Hookerton, 87-69; Snow Hill, 152-96; and in Walstonburg, 124-82.

Early voters cast 658 votes in favor and 425 against the measure. Absentee ballots voted down the legislation, 42-84.

Had the referendum failed, municipalities would have had the option to place it on their next municipal ballot. However, towns need do nothing more since it passed countywide.

“Once it is voted on by the entire county, it affects the entire county. It cannot be stopped by a town that wants to prohibit it,” said Steve Hines, the director of the Greene County Board of Elections. “Once it is passed in the county, anybody living within the town limits of Snow Hill, Walstonburg or Hookerton, or on the outskirts of the county line, are eligible to apply for an ABC license, once this gets up to Raleigh for their approval.”

Bobby Taylor, the chairman of the Greene County ABC Board, put it this way: “Federal law trumps state law. State law trumps county law and county law trumps town law.”

The state ABC Commission has the ultimate decision-making authority on most aspects of alcohol sales. The commission is authorized to issue all ABC permits and regulates number of businesses that may hold ABC permits, their location and proximity to residences, schools and churches and parking and traffic rules.

“There is state law and ABC administrative rules people are going to have to comply with,” said Russell King, the assistant special agent in charge with N.C. Alcohol Law Enforcement in Greenville.

“State law sets the minimum bar. You can’t have a location that sells alcohol within 50 feet of a school or church. We would be the agency that ensures that they do that. We do routine checks as well as respond to complaints or concerns from the community or local law enforcement.”

Food sales in restaurants that serve alcohol must exceed 30 percent of the total sales and food must be available at all times. Regulations govern advertising, age limits for sales and serving of alcohol by employees, and training to identify intoxication. A city or county typically writes its own ordinance, which incorporates state laws into local zoning and special-use permitting which can be more restrictive.

Notice must be given to local governments before a decision is made on ABC permits applications. The ABC Commission must consider local ordinances but is not bound by them, according to the UNC School of Government.

“Most of the time, what happens is state law sets the minimum standard, then a city or county can adopt a general ordinance,” King said. “A (city or county) ordinance may be more strict than state law. They just can’t be more lenient. If anything, the ordinances work in our favor.”

Greene County is now researching ordinances in surrounding cities and will write a countywide mixed beverage ordinance that follows its established zoning ordinances, according to county manager Kyle DeHaven.

“There is nothing in the zoning ordinance that actually states anything about liquor-by-the-drink, just the types of businesses that would possibly sell them,” said Brandon Sutton, Greene County’s planner, who helped write the countywide zoning ordinance. “We paid close attention to what zones things such as bars or nightclubs could be located in and they would also require a special-use permit.

“As far as a restaurant that may sell it, they are also limited to certain zones and in others requires a special-use permit,” Sutton said. “So they would have to go through that whole process to be approved.”

Rick Davis, the county’s economic developer, led the way in campaigning for the passage of mixed beverages as an economic development tool.

“The intent of everybody I’ve talked to (was to advocate) for restaurants to be able to serve mixed drinks,” Davis said. “It’s a much different atmosphere than just having a bar.

“From an economic development standpoint, I don’t think we need to have bars to accomplish what we can accomplish with out mixed-beverage election,” he said. “We sort of hang out a welcome sign with the restaurants.”

Davis said he believes welcoming businesses that sell mixed drinks and food sends the message to regional economic development organizations and state funding sources like USDA and Golden LEAF that the county is helping itself.

“When they see us investing in ourselves, they’re much more amendable to investing in us also,” Davis said. “They like to think their money is leveraging county money, because the county also has skin in the game and is working hard to move forward. The election was only intended to let our businesses take advantage of mixed beverage sales. They need every bit of help we can give them.”

Davis sees the sale of mixed drinks as a small step helping existing businesses grow and attracting new business.

“This, I envision, is one small building block,” he said .”I don’t see it as Greene County drinking its way to prosperity. It doesn’t work like that. If businesses can’t prosper, the county can’t prosper. We don’t want business to prosper at the expense of the citizens, but we do need business to prosper for the city and county to prosper,” he said.

Retailers with an ABC permit are required by state law to buy their liquor from the county ABC store and the county receives 2.25 cents in tax revenue for every dollar of liquor sold in Greene County, Taylor said.

“We are fixing to top — for the first time in the history of Greene County — $800,000 in sales this year,” he said. “It is trickle-down economics. That liquor gets taxed three times.”