OK, so I beat up on four members of the Columbia County Board of Education the other day for not making a decision on whether to allow a restaurant to serve alcohol near Bel Air Elementary School.
It seems four members of the school board didnt want to touch the issue, even though just six weeks earlier they had tentatively approved a waiver of distance restrictions. Afterward, residents of nearby neighborhoods whipped up opposition, and the heat was too much when trustees met to give a final vote.
Four board members - Chairman Wayne Bridges, and trustees Mickey Blackburn, Roxanne Whitaker and Regina Buccafusco - seem to want the issue to disappear. Trustee Lee Muns favors the waiver, citing increased tax revenue from a new restaurant.
Its in limbo now. Trustees can bring it back and give it a yes/no vote (which is what they should do); or they can just ignore it altogether and hope it goes away. But theres a potential problem: Because trustees approved the waiver - though the vote was just tentative - the Rhineharts Oyster Bar owners could move forward with their alcohol-license request, rightly claiming the school boards only recorded vote supports a waiver!
Board members seeking an easy solution to a public controversy arent getting it. The energized citizens arent willing to let them off the hook for indecisiveness, and they will be further angered if county officials allow the license anyway (which they say they would not do if the board rejects the waiver).
All that aside, lets tackle the philosophical issues here. Why does the law establish no-alcohol zones around schools and churches in the first place? In theory, the laws are there to protect those establishments from alcohol sales, making the very broad assumption that there automatically is a negative atmosphere whenever alcohol is sold or served.
Based on that assumption, trustees said no a few years ago when they were asked to allow a Pump "n Shop to be built closer to Riverside Middle School than the law allows. The stores owners shifted the store slightly on their land and met the distance requirement anyway. The store has operated 24 hours a day since then, with no obvious ill effects on Riverside, on a day-care center next door, or on the new Bible Cathedral nearby.
Patrons of Pump "n Shop can buy beer at the store, but theyre not allowed to consume it on the site. The law prohibits riding in a vehicle with an open container of alcohol, so no one can drink driving away from the store without breaking the law.
If alcohol sales are assumed to be bad for schools, then its easy to argue that the atmosphere of a restaurant where alcohol is consumed on site is more harmful than that of a store where on-premises consumption is forbidden.
The law makes no such distinction. Yet if it did, the school board has already set a precedent by rejecting a waiver request from what by this measure is the lesser of two evils. After saying no to a convenience store that sells sealed six-packs, trustees would have a difficult time allowing a restaurant that serves open bottles.
That is, if they can make a decision at all. Theyll have an opportunity to do so on May 13 at their 6 p.m. meeting in the Evans Government Complex Auditorium - and those Belair Road residents will be waiting.
Incidentally, waivers would be a thing of the past if former County Commissioner John Evans had his way. Evans was a commissioner when the countys alcohol referendum passed in 1991. I wish the waiver provision was not in the ordinance, Evans says, and were going to petition the county commission to take it out.
With some 250 signatures already on a petition against just one waiver, a petition against all waivers may be overwhelming.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 863-6165, extension 106.)
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