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County wants input on possible alcohol changes
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Effingham County commissioners hope to get public input on potential changes to the county’s alcohol ordinance.

Commissioners tabled action on the changes at their March 20 meeting, seeking to have a say from the citizens before approving any modifications.

"I think we need to let the churches have some input on this," said Commissioner Steve Mason. "I would rather not make a decision on this. If any (issue) deserves public input, this is one of them."

Added Commissioner Vera Jones: "This is one you want public input on."

The current statutes stipulate that distilled spirits cannot be sold within 100 yards of any church building or within 200 yards of any school or educational building, school grounds or college campus. The ordinance also bans the sale of wine or malt beverages within 100 yards of a school.

The matter came up not only during the commissioners’ regular portion of their meeting but also during planning board presentments on a conditional use application.

Gateway Community Church has been meeting at Ebenezer Elementary School for about a year, according to pastor Andy Lamon, and has been looking for a more permanent home.

Gateway Community Church will be leasing five units in Waterford Court. Lamon told commissioners that no one within the restricted area has applied for a liquor license nor have any building permits been pulled for an establishment that has sought to have an alcohol license.

"The argument we’ve gone back and forth on is based upon the possibility of a ‘maybe,’ rather than the reality," Lamon said.

Lamon said the church was willing to sign a statement that it is not interested in restricting the use of anyone in the neighboring properties within the 300-foot restriction.

"We’re not interested in restricting anyone’s use," he said. "We simply want to have our services in that location."

Jones, who owns an adjacent commercial property, said she supported the church going into Waterford Court. As an adjoining property owner, she stepped down from the dais during discussion of the conditional use application.

Jones also said that one of the spaces in her building next to Waterford Court is large enough to accommodate a restaurant, and approving the conditional use application means any future restaurant tenant would not be able to serve alcohol.

"I didn’t want to hold up their zoning," she said. "I spoke on behalf of them because I think it does more harm to the county to have an empty building sitting back there."

Commission Chairman Dusty Zeigler said such instances may continue to come before the board of commissioners.

"This is going to increasingly be an issue as churches find themselves in commercial spaces, and as commercial spaces take up road frontage," he said.

Said Lamon: "That is a very common thing that is happening throughout the United States as churches try to find non-traditional meeting places."

Commissioners were presented with five options, including the choice of leaving the ordinance intact. They also have the option of removing the separation requirement altogether between churches and establishments that hold alcohol licenses.

Also on the table is making churches a prohibited use in commercial districts, removing the distance rule for churches in retail or business centers or removing the distance requirement between churches and restaurants that sell beer, wine and liquor by the drink for consumption on premises.

"This issue has come up several times when we are dealing with churches locating in commercial districts," said County Administrator David Crawley.

Crawley said he didn’t think the commissioners want to stop churches from setting up in commercial districts, making option 3 the least viable.

"You could remove the separation requirement as it relates specifically to retail and business centers," he told commissioners. "This would be fine; however, we would have to define retail and business centers in the zoning ordinance."

He recommended that those definitions also should be included in the alcohol ordinance.

Commissioners also were split on which option they favored, with none of them in favor of prohibiting churches from locating in commercial districts. But there was support for any of the other four options.

A recent referendum approved the sale of liquor by the drink on Sundays but a measure to allow the package sales of beer and wine on Sundays failed by a narrow margin. Liquor stores currently are not allowed and another referendum — with 35 percent of the registered voters in the county submitting a petition to put that on a ballot — would have to be held to approve liquor stores in the county.

Commissioners are scheduled to hold a public hearing on the matter at their April 4 meeting.