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Commissioners approve changes to alcohol laws
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Effingham County commissioners have approved an amendment to the alcohol ordinance they hope will address the issue of churches moving into retail areas.

In a 4-1 vote, commissioners agreed to the inclusion of a clause in the alcohol ordinance that spells out the distance between businesses selling liquor by the drink and churches. The ordinance stipulates that there must be at least 100 yards between a church and a restaurant selling liquor by the drink, "provided that the prohibition of the sale of distilled spirits by the drinkfor consumption on the premises shall not apply to restaurants located within business centers that are within 100 yards of any church located within the same or an adjacent business center."

Commissioners have wrangled for several weeks over the issue of churches locating in business areas and the impact the separation regulation has on restaurants that may locate in that the business center or in an adjoining retail area.

"The distance requirement between churches and restaurants located in a business center would be waived by the ordinance," said County Administrator David Crawley. "It eliminated the distance requirement for a church that locates within a business center. However, there is this issue of applying to a church that is adjacent to a business center."

Crawley suggested adding the portion concerning churches within the same or an adjacent business center in order to remove a loophole.

"If the issue is churches locating in a business center, that’s a little different than us allowing restaurants to sell distilled spirits by the drink anywhere, as long as they’re in a business center," he said.

Commissioner Reggie Loper, who cast the dissenting vote, said he was against the sales of liquor next to a church.

"Any church that is there today, you should not be able to sell beer, wine and liquor within 100 yards," he said. "I’m against having distilled spirits next door to a church, period."

But other commissioners attempted to allay Loper’s concerns, stating the 100-yard rule for standalone churches remains in place and the new provision was enacted in order for restaurants that wish to sell liquor by the drink could, if a church set up in their same business center.

"I think what we’re trying to do is get to where a church that is currently or will be located in a multi-unit building won’t preclude a restaurant from going there," said Commissioner Phil Kieffer.

Added Commissioner Steve Mason: "The whole goal of what we’re talking about is start-up churches and giving them a place to rent before they build, without having to go through a conditional use, and at the same time allowing business owners rights to their property."

However, Loper remained unmoved and said he would get an interpretation of the ordinance from his own attorney.

"This is still not preventing someone from building something next to a church," he said.

"Yes, it does," Crawley responded. "At this point in time, it only applies to churches locating in business centers."

Crawley said the reworked ordinance is even more restrictive because it defines what a business center is.

"That provides some future protection," he said. "The church would not prohibit the restaurant from going in there."

Said assistant county attorney Elizabeth Pavlis: "An existing church would be protected with the additional language."