Effingham County commissioners have voted to remove the separation requirement between churches in retail or business centers and businesses that sell alcohol.
In a 5-1 approval of the first reading, with Chairman Dusty Zeigler the lone dissenter, commissioners opted to amend the current ordinance regulating alcohol sales. The current statute calls for a 100-yard distance between a church building and a business selling mixed drinks.
"Currently, a restaurant can serve beer or wine and a package store can sell beer or wine" within 100 yards of a church building, county attorney Eric Gotwalt said. "The only thing the ordinance prohibits is the sale of distilled spirits, or mixed drinks, by the drink."
The package sale of distilled spirits remains prohibited under county law.
Before commissioners approve a second reading of the amended ordinance, and enact it into law, language defining retail and business centers will be drafted and included in the proposed change.
Commissioner Bob Brantley said the option to remove the separation requirements was the most realistic.
"I think we’re all in agreement," he said. "We’re just trying to figure out how to do it."
The issue has gained the commissioners’ attention since churches that are just starting are looking for meeting spaces before building their own permanent structure. So far, two churches have sought to occupy space in retail or business centers.
"It’s important for start-up churches to have access to these kinds of buildings," said Charlie Kea.
Kea also said that if a church was going to locate in something similar to a mall, it would go in with the understanding that alcohol could be sold nearby.
Commissioner Steve Mason pointed out that churches seeking to move into commercial spaces have to ask for a conditional use, since it is a non-conforming use for that zoning.
"What we’re trying to do is trying not to affect the adjoining property owners in commercial districts," he said, "but at the same time trying to keep the door open for the start-up churches. That’s what we’re struggling with. Nobody intends this to affect traditional churches."
Gotwalt and County Administrator David Crawley also suggested that commissioners may want to explore putting in a buffer requirement around commercial districts so that restaurants or businesses that seek to go in there can sell alcohol.
"There’s need to have some type of buffer around that area so that a church locating on a piece of property that is adjacent to a commercial zoning doesn’t inhibit the use of that commercial property," Crawley said.
Gotwalt posited that a piece of property could be developed as a retail center, with plans for a restaurant selling alcohol by the drink in that area. But a church on an adjacent parcel not zoned commercial could open before the necessary alcohol licenses are applied for and granted. Doing so would bring the 100-yard requirement into effect.
The other options for the commissioners were to: do nothing about the ordinance; remove all separation requirements for the sale of alcohol for on-premises consumption and the package sales of beer and wine; make churches a prohibited use in commercial districts; remove the separation requirements for sales of alcohol for on-premises consumption; and remove the separation requirement between churches and the package sale of beer and wine. Zeigler said he was in favor of the second option, removing the separation requirements entirely.
Also, Gov. Nathan Deal has signed into law a measure that would limit the powers of the county commission chairman. Under the law, House Bill 1257, the chairman would vote only to break a tie between the other commissioners. The law will go into effect Jan. 1, 2013.