BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – The topics of possibility extending weekend drinking hours for restaurants and the future of employee permits headlined the discussion at the third Blue Ridge Alcohol Committee meeting Tuesday, May 29.
The meeting consisted of an informal round-table discussion that included the committee, which consists of city council members Robbie Cornelius and Harold Herndon, city residents David Gray (absent from the meeting) and Larry Versyn, and local business owners Stuart Arp and Ken Brenneman, as well as Mayor Donna Whitener, Police Chief Johnny Scearce, city supervisor of tax and licensing Sally Smith, and local business owners Brendan Doyle and Scott Peters.
The idea of extending hours during which establishments are allowed to serve alcohol was originally proposed by Arp, owner of Chester Brunnemeyer’s Bar and Grill, at the first Alcohol Committee meeting April 11. Arp suggested extending the cut off time for alcohol service from 11:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.
Arp stressed to the committee and attendees that he felt businesses are losing tourist dollars from visitors who are unaware of the 11:30 p.m. cut off time and do not begin to arrive in the downtown area until 9:30 or 10 p.m.
“It would be a good thing to give us the option, whether (business owners) implement it or not,” said Doyle, owner of The Boro Inn, of the possibility of extending the cut off time on weekends.
In addition, Arp stated he would like to amend the beginning of alcohol service from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.
Brenneman, owner of Blue Jeans Pizza and Pasta, objected to the idea of modifying the morning start time for alcohol sales. “We have places of business that serve breakfast, and if they want to serve a mimosa, they ought to be able to serve a mimosa. Just like you ought to be able, or you guys are pushing, to serve liquor at 1 a.m. in the morning,” Brenneman stated to Arp.
To this, Arp clarified his proposal was for a 12:30 a.m. cut off with all patrons to be vacated from establishments by 1 a.m.
“There are events that drive people in here that are looking to go out late,” Arp stated. “Even some of the employees, there’s no place for them to go (after work) because (businesses are) already closed. I don’t think 12:30 a.m. is egregious by any means … and I’m only saying for two nights a week.”
Concerning the potential 12:30 a.m. cut off, Versyn stated he believed it was “not unreasonable.”
Mayor Whitener also mentioned she felt a later cut off could possibly attract local residents who work until 6 or 7 p.m. or even later to come out who normally would not.
Regarding employee serving permits, the committee revisited the proposed ordinance amendment from January, which would require employees to reapply for a new permit every year at a cost of $30 instead of once every three years.
When Cornelius asked the business owners present where they stood on the proposal, Arp, Doyle and Peters all felt the change would be too much of a hardship for employees. Brenneman, however, favored the change to one year.
Offering an explanation for the proposed change, Smith told the committee of a local bartender who had recently received two DUIs (driving under the influence) in the time following the issuance of his serving permit. “We never knew about it (and) he’s not supposed to have that,” Smith said, referring to the serving permit.
“I can understand both sides; I’d split the difference (and) go two years,” Chief Scearce said. “You’re right on some points and you’re right on your points, but what I’m saying is this … say someone got out there and got popped in Atlanta at a concert with a bag of dope in their pocket … We’d never know about it till we run (a check).”
The committee also discussed the legality of “sip and shop” events at downtown businesses.
At the May 2 meeting, Versyn stated he had heard of retail establishments serving alcohol to patrons after hours while they shopped, and he expressed a concern over this.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Chief Scearce explained business owners cannot serve or sell alcohol to customers either privately or after hours, but business owners themselves are allowed to consume alcohol in their place of business after hours.
“You’re saying it’s still okay to lock the doors and then drink all night long in their establishment as long as they’re not selling it?” Versyn asked Scearce.
Again, Scearce stressed to Versyn business owners are not allowed to serve customers, but “if these (owners) want to sit in their business after it’s closed and sit there all night long and get drunk off their hind end, I could care less. But when they come out on that road, they’re mine.”
Also, in the January ordinance amendments, which passed a first public hearing by the city council but was never adopted, a provision was proposed for the mayor and/or council members who hold a 10 percent or higher ownership in an establishment to recuse him or herself from voting on any matter that would involve said establishment.
The Alcohol Committee appeared in agreement that this amendment should be approved as originally presented.
Moving forward, City Attorney James Balli is expected to draft a new proposal for amendments to the alcohol ordinance based on the recommendations and discussions of the Alcohol Committee over the past two months and present them to the city council at a future meeting.
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.
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.