By Brad Hicks
The Monday, May 22, meeting of the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen drew a considerable contingent opposed to the passage of a pair of alcohol-related ordinance amendments up for the board’s consideration.
Around three-fourths of the more than one dozen people who spoke during a public hearing held prior to the board’s consideration of the amendments voiced concern and opposition. Most of the opposed implored the board to reconsider the ordinances, as they felt loosening the reins on municipal alcohol laws would have a detrimental impact on the community and would not bring with it the economic boon Erwin’s leaders are hoping for.
But, at the end of a lengthy discussion, the BMA unanimously voted to approve the second and final reading of the ordinance amendment, one of which would abolish alcohol-related distance requirements in Erwin’s downtown overlay district, and the other pertaining to the serving of alcohol at special events.
Prior to Monday, municipal code stated beer permits may not be granted by the Town of Erwin to businesses located within 200 feet of an established church or school. While that distance requirement will continue to remain in effect for most of the town, it has been eliminated in Erwin’s downtown overlay district per the amendment passed Monday.
The amendment states the 200-foot requirement is “unreasonably restrictive” within the downtown overlay district, which was adopted in 2012.
“What we found is if a church is located right in the middle of downtown, within that distance, any restaurant or anyone coming that wants to sell alcohol would not be allowed to, which a 200-foot radius would take out almost the entire middle of downtown,” Erwin Town Recorder Glenn Rosenoff said in April, when the first readings of both amendments were approved by the BMA.
The issuance of beer permits will still lie with the Erwin Beverage Board, which is made up of the BMA’s membership.
The second ordinance amendment approved Monday relates to alcohol at special events. The town’s code provided officials with some discretion in allowing the serving of alcohol at special events and outdoor events held within the town, but Rosenoff previously said more specific language was needed in the ordinance.
“Basically, when we’re having our festivals and different activities, currently the municipal code says under ‘Alcohol’ that the board has the discretion and authority to do certain things to permit beer,” Rosenoff said last month, “but, seeing the (Erwin Great Outdoors Festival) and other things happening, this has been a work in progress to basically change the code and add it in there to where there is a process to allow, at certain times, alcohol for outdoor activity or special events.”
The amended code states that it shall be unlawful for a person to drink or consume, or have an opened container of beer or liquor on any public roadway, park, school grounds or other public place “except in a permitted outdoor use area with a permitted special event or town sponsored activity, or in a permitted outdoor use area with a restaurant or establishment with a current alcoholic beverage commission permit and town beer permit.”
Upon learning of the passage of the amended ordinances, Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Amanda Delp said she also believed it would have a positive economic impact on the town. However, as for the Unicoi County Apple Festival, which the Chamber coordinates, the organization has no plans to include alcohol in the festivities.
“We have had no discussions, nor do we plan to have any discussions about having alcohol sold during the Apple Festival,” Delp said.
In an attempt to quell some of the concern, Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley said Monday the event alcohol permit, for which a $250 application must be paid, must be approved by the town and is only good for the times and dates specified in the application. She added the amendment would pertain only to Erwin’s downtown business district.
Jim Thompson and Unicoi County Commissioner Gene Wilson were among those who voiced opposition to the ordinances prior to the board’s vote. Thompson said he failed to see how the ordinances would benefit the town and, citing the “beer joints” that once operated in Erwin, added their passage could create a poor environment.
“I just don’t think we need that kind of entertainment in our town,” Thompson said.
“I just wish you all would reconsider this and vote against this thing, because we don’t need it,” Wilson said.
Like several who voiced opposition, Erwin resident Norman Brown worried about the impact the passage of the amendments could have on the community’s future generations.
“I think we have all forgot that we set examples, and I don’t think that having a celebration so we drink down on the streets is a good example for our kids,” Brown said.
Jeff Autrey, a Burnsville, N.C., resident and pastor of the West Park Street Baptist Church located in Unicoi County, pointed at a child in the audience as he urged the board to vote down the measures.
“This whole vote isn’t about you guys, it isn’t about right now,” Autrey said to the board. “It’s what is this going to do to that generation. They’re the ones that’s going to have to live with it.”
Several others expressed skepticism that the ordinance alterations would result in an economic windfall for the town.
“I’m telling you folks – you’re going to lose more revenue by putting this in place,” Lee Bennett said.
But several who spoke during Monday’s public hearing urged the board to approve the amendments. Tyler Engle, executive director of the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County, said the amendments, particularly the ordinance pertaining to special events, would actually create more control than the town possessed prior to their passage. He also said updated ordinances could serve to benefit the town economically.
“From an economic development perspective, it’s pretty imperative that we modernize our regulations,” Engle said.
Jamie Rice, who co-owns the Bramble Event Space and Venue located in downtown Erwin, also asked the board to support passage of the amendments.
“I, personally, as a business owner, feel this would be positive for us downtown,” Rice said. “When I am trying to talk to brides and their families and draw the wedding tourism business into our downtown, everyone asks, ‘What is there to do? Where can I take my family for a nice dinner after 7 p.m.?’ Right now, there are very limited options, so I feel like this ordinance change would potentially open the door for small business restaurateurs to come in and open a business that I need for my business.”
Kelsey Bartley told the board her family is looking to invest in Erwin’s downtown area by opening a business there. Part of that business model, Bartley said, includes a restaurant that has evening hours and serves wine and beer.
“I think that something we might not be discussing is how this ordinance would directly impact a restaurant,” Bartley said. “It’s not just drinking on the streets. It’s actually having something that’s out here. The building we’re looking at has a patio area outside. All of that is relevant to this ordinance, and I don’t think bringing in a restaurant like that or even a similar establishment is going to necessarily bring debauchery and drunkenness. You can look at any number of restaurants that serve alcohol, and you don’t constantly have drunks pouring out of those doors like you would at a seedy bar, and I don’t think that’s the image we’re trying to really create here with these ordinance changes. It’s more about bringing in new options for commerce and economic development, which I personally believe is important.”
Several members of the BMA also shared their thoughts on the code amendments prior to their vote. Alderman Mark Lafever said he feels strongly about the potential economic benefits amending the ordinances could have. While he said he appreciated those who turned out to voice their opposition, Lafever said he feels amending the ordinances would be acting in the best interest of the town as a whole, adding the changes also have much support in the community.
“My family has been devastated, too, by the loss of a job, and if we don’t do something in this town to fix that, to entice people to come to our town, we’re all going to be looking for a place to go,” Lafever said.
Alderwoman Rachelle Hyder-Shurtz attempted to calm some who expressed safety concerns by telling those in attendance that businesses setting up beer tents during special events are responsible for patrons leaving the tents.
“So who cuts these people off? The bartenders cut these people off, because if they allow them to leave that tent and they do get out and they get in a car wreck, it’s on (the business) and they do get sued for that,” she said. “So you can’t go down and drink yourself into a stupor, and we always have the police force there, as well, in these permitted areas.”
When questioned by a member of the audience, Alderman Virgil Moore, who serves as a deacon at First Baptist Church in Erwin, said he has no issue with the changes to the ordinances.
“I support this. I don’t have any reason to change my mind,” Moore said. “I want to see growth downtown.”
The ordinances are set to go into effect 10 days from their passage on second and final reading.
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In other business, the board approved the second and final reading of an update to the town’s building codes to bring these codes in compliance with the state’s minimum codes. The town had been operating under the 2006 codes, but the state of Tennessee previously adopted the 2012 codes. The town was required to update its codes to match those of the state.
The board also tabled its consideration of an application of economic incentive. Engle told the board Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch had requested the item be tabled until a joint meeting of the JEDB, Erwin BMA and Unicoi County Commission could be arranged to review the program.