BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – An Alcohol Committee has been formed at the request of the Blue Ridge City Council and Mayor Donna Whitener to review the city’s alcohol ordinance. On Wednesday, April 11, the committee held its first meeting and discussed proposed amendments to the ordinance as well as other possible changes seen as needed.
The committee is composed of six members, including city council members Robbie Cornelius and Harold Herndon, city residents David Gray and Larry Versyn, and downtown restaurateurs Stuart Arp and Ken Brenneman.
At a Jan. 25 special called meeting, a first reading of an amendment to the alcohol ordinance was conducted. In that amendment, three distinct changes to the ordinance, which was first enacted in April 2011, were presented to the council. The first change in Section 110.45-34(f)(6) would change the valid time span for employee serving permits from three years to one year.
Another change in Section 110.45-14 (a) would change the wording of the conflict of interest statement for the city council to disallow a member of the council with more than a 10 percent controlling interest of an establishment licensed to sell, distribute, or deal alcohol from a “vote on any matter involving or relating to said establishment.” Previously, the ordinance required a council member holding such a controlling interest in an establishment to “divest himself thereof within 60 days” of election or appointment to office.
The third change in Section 110.45-50 (b)(2)(H) would allow for “reasonable drink specials” for regular establishments and for “licensed catered functions pursuant to an issued City permit.”
The committee discussed and reviewed these changes as well as addressed several other possible changes to the ordinance. Herndon noted that the conflict of interest section of the ordinance did not contain specific wording to include the mayor.
“That might be something we need to add,” Cornelius stated.
Versyn did point out the heading of the section included the words “officials and employees,” but also brought attention to another subsection, which reads “The Mayor, upon advice and consent of the City Council, may exempt officers and employees of the City from the provisions of this section.”
“If that’s the case, how can the mayor exempt herself?” Versysn asked. “So, that has to somehow be changed.”
Later, the conversation included other slight adjustments to the ordinance and enforcement of laws already in place. Brenneman, owner of Blue Jeans Pizza & Pasta, questioned the feasibility of the ordinance’s requirement for any front-of-the-house employee to have an alcohol serving license. He stated, to his understanding, the ordinance even requires all non-serving, front-of-the-house positions, such as a hostess, food-runner or busser, to be permitted.
“It seems to me (the ordinance) should actually be constrained to those who are actually serving,” Brenneman stated.
Arp, owner of Chester Brunnenmeyer’s Bar & Grill, stated he would like to see better enforcement of the alcohol ordinance, particularly in regard to the 50/50 food-to-alcohol sales ratio and the hours of operation for establishments serving alcohol. Currently, the ordinance requires at least one-half of the total sales of any establishment serving alcohol to be food sales. The ordinance also prohibits the sale of alcohol after 11:30 p.m.
Arp said the lack of enforcement of these policies are benefiting establishments that either are ignoring or are unaware of the policies and hurting establishments that are following the law.
“A lot of the problem is that people don’t even know the laws,” Arp stated. “I think our mission is to clean (the ordinance) up, make recommendations about if we think the hours are wrong … and then enforcement is one thing … I don’t think a mayor or a city council person should have an interest because they control recommending suspensions of licenses, approving of licenses … It’s problematic for me as a business owner (for city officials) to have that kind of power and they’re my competitor … I don’t think (the ordinance) has to be blown up. I just think it has to get tweaked.”
As for the 50/50 food-to-alcohol ratio, Arp stated he agreed with the ordinance in that regard and said his restaurant consistently produces a monthly ration of 65/35. Brenneman stated his restaurant consistently produces a 90/10 food-to-alcohol ratio. Versyn, however, stated he would like to see a less stringent ratio of 40/60 in an effort to increase business in downtown Blue Ridge.
“Right now, (patrons) leave these restaurants at 8 p.m. at night, for the most part, and they head to Ellijay where they can go drink,” Versyn said. “What I’m saying is let’s keep people in Blue Ridge, in this city, a little longer than what they’re doing now.”
To this, Cornelius stated she did not like the idea of increasing the alcohol percentage. Gray agreed with Cornelius and said, “My feeling is that there are kids on the road, my kids, and when you start serving more alcohol, that puts more risk for more accidents.”
The committee also felt the 50/50 ratio should apply to breweries and wineries in the same manner as it does to restaurants.
“I can’t tell you how many people I get coming into my restaurant at 5 p.m. on Saturday and they’re intoxicated because they’ve been drinking $15 beer tastings all day long and now I have to deal with it,” Arp said.
When Cornelius mentioned the ordinance currently places a 24-ounce limit on tastings at breweries and wineries, the issue again returned to enforcement.
“I see it every night starting at about 11 p.m., the cops start cruising,” Arp said, “and we do a great job of harassing our tourists and pulling them over, but (police officers) are not going into the places that are breaking the law that are serving them.”
Later, Arp suggested the idea of extending the hours of operation for alcohol establishments from 11:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights in an effort to increase business from tourists who may not be aware of the 11:30 p.m. cut-off time. “(Tourists) are used to going out later and staying out later,” Arp explained.
“As a resident, I think we do enough catering to tourists,” Gray responded.
“Like it or not, for better or worse, Blue Ridge is a tourist town,” Versyn told Gray. “If we do not cater to tourists, we will become a ghost town.”
To this, Gray told Versyn he understood but also held concern for younger drivers coming home at the same time patrons are leaving downtown restaurants. Again, the conversation returned to enforcement, and Versyn stated that restaurants are prohibited from serving anyone who is intoxicated no matter what the time.
“If we can do the enforcement, if the enforcement can be done, I have no problem with it,” Versyn stated of the 12:30 a.m. cut-off of alcohol sales, “but if we’re going to rely on the Blue Ridge City Police Department, escorting their favorites home at night instead of arresting them like they should … that is not what we’re supposed to be doing.”
Following this, Cornelius instructed the committee to continue to review the ordinance and begin an email conversation with suggestions for amendments and revisions. A second meeting was then scheduled for Wednesday, May 2, at 5:30 p.m. to finalize changes to present to the city council at the May 8 council meeting.
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