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County puts alcohol separation rules back on the table
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Effingham County commissioners will wait until their next meeting to delve into distance requirements between churches and outlets selling alcohol.

Commissioners, after an hour-long discussion at their last meeting, eventually tabled the matter, though they appeared to be inclined to favor one of six options forwarded by county staff.

The issue is being driven largely by churches locating in commercial districts, County Administrator David Crawley said.

"It would impact the location of restaurants that would like to serve beer, wine or malt beverages or distilled spirits on the premises," he said.

Said Commissioner Bob Brantley: "The whole thing boils down to churches wanting to open up in shopping centers, and it could affect future businesses."

The options spelled out for commissioners included doing nothing, leaving the current statute in place; removing the separation requirements; making churches a prohibited use in commercial districts; removing the separation requirement for churches located in a retail center; removing the separation requirement for establishments selling alcohol by the drink and churches; and removing the separation requirement for beer and wine package sales and churches.

"We feel it would be better to address zoning as a whole, rather than trying to grant variances," assistant county attorney Elizabeth Pavlis said.

Under current county ordinances, distilled spirits cannot be sold within 100 yards of a church building. The regulation also stipulates beer and wine cannot be sold within 100 yards of a school facility.

Commissioners worried that allowing a conditional use for a church to come into a commercial district could hamper other potential tenants, such as restaurants that wish to sell alcohol by the drink.

"The landlord is going to be hurt by the fact that he has a church come in," Brantley said.

Said Commissioner Phil Kieffer: "A church coming in is a conditional use. We don’t want to get into a situation where we’re hesitant to allow a church to come in there to protect that property owner."

Bob Rogers, pastor of First Baptist Church of Rincon, pointed out the recent votes that approved the Sunday sales of alcohol by the drink but defeated Sunday package sales were both by narrow margins.

"Both of those margins were razor-thin," he said. "It seems like our county is split right down the middle on the issue. It indicates to me there are some concerns about continuing the trends of lessening the regulations of alcohol usage. I don’t have any easy answers for you, but I encourage you to consider our children and not rush into a decision of lessening this law simply for the sake of business purposes. Though we want to do what’s good for business, I think we have an even more important guiding principle and do what’s good for the children."

Rogers added that ordinances restricting the sale of alcohol almost always make the distinction of keeping it away from churches and schools.

"I don’t wish to hurt businesses, and I certainly don’t wish to limit religious freedom," he said. "You have to ask, why is this an issue? Why is this a state law, why are there distance requirements between retail sales of alcohol and churches and schools? The answer seems pretty apparent — it’s children. Churches have families, and there are minors. Society recognizes the wisdom of having some distance between the usage of alcohol and children."

Commissioners also grappled with how to accommodate churches that are looking for space as they begin operation.

"I’m trying to figure a way where the small, start-up churches have an opportunity to rent before they build," said Commissioner Steve Mason, "and I don’t want to restrict the property rights of others. I don’t think we can do away with the separation across the board. I don’t want to prohibit churches completely. I would like to figure out a way these smaller churches, trying to get going, can find a place before they build, without restricting the property owners."

Commissioner Vera Jones voiced her support for the option to remove the separation requirement should churches occupy a space in a retail center and adding that package sales would be prohibited under that circumstance.

"Otherwise, people are going to have trouble getting conditional uses," she said. "If they come in under a conditional use, the church is making a decision, the pastor and the people are making a decision, they are able to think about that ahead of time. And nine times out of 10, it’s temporary."

Crawley said that a church taking a space in a commercial center could be there for a long time as it seeks a more permanent home. Variances can be granted under county ordinances, but not under the alcohol ordinance.

"I would like for us to include that the package sales of distilled spirits is prohibited, period," he said. "Our ordinance says that in multiple ways, but it doesn’t say it that clearly. No matter what, we don’t allow the package sale of liquor in the county."