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County closes in on new alcohol law
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Effingham County commissioners gave the county’s alcohol ordinance a few tweaks during a first reading of a proposed new law Tuesday morning.

The new ordinance will cover all aspects of the county’s alcohol regulations, including the sale of mixed drinks in restaurants. County voters overwhelmingly approved the sale of liquor by the drink in a referendum last month.

The ordinance, which will come back to the commissioners for a second reading before it is approved, calls for businesses that sell liquor by the drink to make at least 55 percent of their profits from the sale of food. It also called for hours of service to be from 11 a.m.-12 a.m. and for a 200-yard distance between the establishments and such places as schools or churches.

But commissioners still had questions for county staff on the ordinance. Specifically, Commissioner Reggie Loper asked what exactly constituted a full-service restaurant and what could be called a restaurant.

“There’s already a bunch of people out there trying to find a way to beat this ordinance,” he said. “And that’s not what we promised the people of Effingham County. Ever since we started this, one of my requirements was to know what a full-service restaurant was, and this does not tell you what a full-service restaurant is.”

Loper worried that someone could put up a shed-like structure and equip it with a microwave to prepare food and then obtain a pouring license.

“There are not many restrictions on a restaurant,” he said. “There’s no table limit. I think it needs to be defined what a restaurant is. You need to have 12 beds to have a hotel.”

Assistant County Attorney Eric Gotwalt pointed out that the health department has guidelines and restrictions on what a restaurant is. He also noted a Wilmington Island restaurant that seats only a few tables each night and offers intimate dining.

“You won’t find anything on the menu for less than $18 to $20 there,” he said.

Gotwalt added that county staff was trying to streamline the document, based on the comments from the commissioners at the Feb. 19 meeting.

“Tell us what you want it to say,” he told commissioners, “and we’ll address your concerns.”

Commissioner Hubert Sapp said it would be difficult to set a minimum number of tables.

“If you do that, you’re going to be discriminating,” he said.

The proposed ordinance includes language on the type of structure a full-service restaurant can be. County staff removed stipulations on parking spaces, noting that is covered in zoning requirements.

Commissioners also wanted to change the minimum distance between an establishment selling alcohol and places such as schools, libraries and churches. The proposal called for 100 yards between the two, which is the state minimum. The current county law calls for 300 yards between package stores and a school, church or library.

“I am not in favor of 100 yards and I will not support 100 yards,” Chairman Myra Lewis said. “That is as simple as I know how to say it.”

Commissioner Verna Phillips said she agreed with Lewis on the distance regulations.

Existing businesses will be grandfathered in, and once the ordinance is adopted, whatever goes into an area first between an establishment selling alcohol and a building such as a school or church gets the priority on the distance requirement.

Commissioners also asked a mandatory workshop for license seekers to be removed, concerned that a business accused of selling to a minor could point the finger at the county for not being diligent enough in its license approval seminar.

“Anyone who wants to open a restaurant or business ought to know what the requirements are beforehand,” Loper said.

Commissioners also had questions on the punishment and appeals process for businesses found to be in violation of the ordinance. Gotwalt said the county is capped by how much it can penalize for violating an ordinance.

Under the proposal, the penalties begin at $1,000 for the first offense and escalate through a fourth offense.

Interim County Administrator David Crawley said an establishment may not reach four violations and could have its license pulled after a first offense.

“I don’t want someone to get the impression they won’t lose their license until after the fourth violation,” Gotwalt said. “They may only get one strike, depending on the nature of the violation.”