BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – The newly formed Blue Ridge Alcohol Committee met for the second time in less than a month Wednesday, May 2.
Originally, the committee had hoped to use this meeting to finalize proposed changes to the city’s alcohol ordinance and present those changes to the city council at its May 8 meeting. However, after additional questions over the ordinance emerged following further research, the committee agreed to continue its study into the ordinance in an effort to improve it, according to the committee’s chairperson, City Councilwoman Robbie Cornelius.
This month’s round-table meeting produced a number of new concerns and further discussion on topics addressed in April.
One of the new concerns this month was who exactly is responsible for enforcement of the alcohol ordinance. The committee asked whether Sally Smith, city tax and licensing clerk, Blue Ridge Police Chief Johnny Scearce or someone else was responsible for issuing citations for ordinance violations. It was agreed this matter would need to be researched thoroughly before the next meeting.
“I actually think we need to move to a separate entity altogether,” said resident committee member Larry Versyn.
Versyn suggested establishing a city Alcohol Ordinance Enforcement Agency. “If such an ‘agency’ was formed, it could allow (city) council members or the mayor to obtain a permit should they desire without there being a conflict (of interest) or without giving them an unfair advantage in the application process either now or further down the road,” Versyn added.
Conflict of interest for council members was another topic discussed at Wednesday’s meeting. The ordinance currently requires a council member holding a 10 percent or more controlling interest in an establishment to “divest himself thereof within 60 days” of election or appointment to office. A previously proposed amendment would allow a council member to retain his or her controlling interest percentage but disallow that member from voting on any such issue involving said establishment.
Ken Brenneman, owner of Blue Jeans and Pasta, described the current conflict of interest clause as “too restrictive” to council members and Versyn adamantly agreed with Brenneman. Harold Herndon, committee member and city councilman, stated he was still debating with his stance on the issue.
Brenneman suggested adding “simple language” in the ordinance for a recusal process for council members. “If (Councilman) Nathan (Fitts) is the owner of The Vault, Nathan ought to be a city council member and he ought to be the owner of The Vault,” Brenneman explained.
Versyn again presented several concerns he has as a downtown resident. Versyn suggested either further limiting the amount of beer able to be consumed during tastings at local breweries or better enforcing the established limit according to the ordinance. He stated he had visited one such brewery over the weekend and noticed patrons consuming four to six glasses of beer in an hour without having eaten any food during that time. In last month’s meeting, Stuart Arp, committee member and owner of Chester Brunnenmeyer’s Bar & Grill, also put forth this same concern.
Also attending the meeting, Scott Peters, owner of Alpine Deli & Cafe, pointed out, according to the ordinance, establishments are required to serve food to guests after two alcoholic beverages are consumed before another drink can be delivered.
Also, Versyn said the committee needed to further research laws regarding “Sip and Shop” practices, where retailers offer a complimentary drink to patrons while shopping. While Brenneman stated he did not have a problem with it and said he felt the idea was a “great concept,” Versyn stated he was concerned over liability and safety issues.
“For one, (retailers) are not trained to (serve alcohol),” Versyn said. “(Patrons) can go from shop to shop to shop and have a little bit in each shop, and by the time they get to the end of the street, they’re walking into traffic.”
Concerning overall enforcement, Versyn again questioned the Blue Ridge Police Department. “There is a gross inequality here in the city of Blue Ridge,” Versyn stated. “Until we enforce these laws for everyone, what’s the point in having it? And I am tired of the police chief (Johnny Scearce), and I’ve said it before, playing favorites with different owners downtown … The police department should not be escorting drunks home at night. They should be arresting them and throwing them in jail.”
Though not able to attend the meeting, Arp, stopped by city hall at the start of the meeting to leave a printed list of recommended changes to the ordinance with the committee. Among the changes Arp proposed are amending the hours of operation, raising special event permit fees from $50 to $150, and lessening the penalties to a liquor license holder in an instance when an employee serves an underage patron.
Last meeting, Arp stated he would favor extending Friday and Saturday night hours of operation to 12:30 a.m. but added he was against the current morning hours of operation beginning at 9 a.m. According to Arp’s proposal, he would like to change the overall hours of operation to 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday, 12:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. on Sunday, and 11 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. on New Year’s Eve.
Brenneman stated he did not have an issue with current 9 a.m. beginning hour of operation. “My only concern … was I really don’t think anything happens good after midnight,” Brenneman said, “and I’m concerned in the public interest and public safety perspective. You know again, we don’t have Uber, (and) we don’t have Lyft. We’re limited in transportation requirements … The infrastructure is all tied in together. It’s going to be up to the council to decide how late they want people to consume alcohol.”
Concerning penalties to establishments serving underage guests, Arp stated in his proposal, “The punishment should be more geared to the server who failed to follow the law versus the license owner. We need to research other cities/towns’ laws regarding this.”
The next Blue Ridge Alcohol Committee meeting will be Tuesday, May 29, at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall.
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