It took fits and starts and stalls and public outcry, but members of the Columbia County Board of Education last week voted unanimously to reject a request to allow alcohol to be served close to a school.
Trustees made the right decision - but nearby residents who won this battle may yet lose the war.
Some history: Craig and Amy Bailey, the owners of Rhineharts Oyster Bar in west Augusta, bought property at the corner of Owens and Belair Roads with the intention of building a second location of the popular restaurant.
They soon discovered that county law would prohibit alcohol sales at the new restaurant. Because nearby Bel Air Elementary was built before 1991, the restaurants entrance must be more than 200 yards away from the school property instead of the 100-yard measurement that applies to schools built later.
That meant the Baileys had three options: They could forego alcohol sales; request a waiver of the distance limit from the schools owner; or buy more land and move the restaurant.
In March, commercial real estate developer Lionel Prather, on behalf of the Baileys, asked Columbia County School Superintendent Tommy Price to waive the distance limit. Price took the issue to the school board, which has the authority, as representatives of the taxpayers who own the school, to allow encroachment on the mandated distance.
Trustees unanimously gave tentative approval to the request, and the issue sat for six weeks. Part of that delay was because of Masters Week, some was because of a commitment by the board to allow further public comment, and some was because trustees were spooked by the unexpected neighborhood outcry over the waiver.
This past Tuesday, trustees - at Prices urging - finally said no. It was the right move: The school board has never granted a waiver, and this was no time to set a precedent.
As it stands, no restaurant built on this site could get an alcohol license because the law doesnt allow it. But remember: The Baileys had three options. The waiver attempt failed, and they arent likely to try to copy their successful restaurant without alcohol. The last option is to buy enough additional land to move the restaurant building beyond the 200-yard limit, out of range of the schools zone of protection.
If that happens, nearby residents who worked so hard to knock on doors and sign petitions may find their effort has been in vain. If any business meets the requirements that are spelled out in the countys laws, commissioners are obligated to grant licenses when requested; they cant add more hurdles to the process just because residents complain.
Bel Airs distance limit, then, may have been merely a temporary setback for the restaurants plans. If its owners choose to climb the legal obstacles in front of them, theres little the neighborhood can do except make their new neighbor feel welcome or unwelcome.
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