Last April, Columbia County's school board approved, and then backed away from, a waiver that would have allowed Rhinehart's Oyster Bar to build a new restaurant at Belair and Owens roads.
The county's alcohol ordinance makes such businesses stay at least 600 feet from a school - in this case, Bel Air Elementary. Craig and Amy Bailey's initial plans put their building just inside that 600-foot limit, so the school board's refusal - correct, we believe - to grant a waiver of that distance requirement gave the Baileys two options: operate without alcohol sales, or move the restaurant.
Opening a "dry" version of the popular Augusta restaurant isn't a realistic business move. So the Baileys dug into their pockets and bought more land to put their building just outside the 600-foot zone.
"We advised them to put a stake in the ground at the 600 mark and make sure the building is beyond that," says Jeff Browning, the county's planning director.
How far beyond? To the consternation of many of the business' opponents, just 7 feet. But for the purposes of the county's alcohol laws, 7 feet may as well be 7 miles. And that drives a stake in the heart of opponents' earlier success in preventing Rhinehart's from opening.
In May 2003, when we commented on this issue, we pointed out that the school board's refusal to grant a waiver provided at best a hollow victory for the restaurant's neighborhood foes, and a temporary - though expensive - setback for the Baileys, whose investment in the property long ago passed the half-million-dollar mark.
"If any business meets the requirements that are spelled out in the county's laws, commissioners are obligated to grant licenses when requested," we noted. "They can't add more hurdles to the process just because residents complain."
Typical is the comment of Florence Knight, who lives on Owens Road near the planned business. "That whole property is within the blinking lights of the school zone, and I can't figure out who in the world thinks it's OK to sell liquor there," she says.
It's not a matter of what's "OK," as in acceptable to individual judgment; it's a matter of what is legal.
Look at it this way: The state sets requirements for obtaining a driver's license; any 16-year-old who passes the proper tests is given a card. The government just can't arbitrarily pick and choose which individual kids can drive.
Likewise, county officials would attract lawsuits - and lose - if they changed the rules every time residents raise a big enough fuss. Don't like the 600-foot rule? Fine; fight to change it. But apply it to the next guy seeking a license; such standards wouldn't - and legally, couldn't - be retroactively enforced.
So if Rhinehart's meets the law's requirements - and even if it's only by the length of about 18 cans of beer, laid end-to-end - county officials should obey the laws they themselves make by granting the license.
Then, just as we advised opponents after the controversial alcohol licensure last year of the Little River Roadhouse in Leah: Stay vigilant. If neighbors think the business will endanger the community, prove it and law enforcement and county officials can shut it down.
Until that happens, the Baileys - Columbia County residents, by the way - have a right to pursue their business opportunity as long as they obey the laws, too.
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