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BOC reaches alcohol distance consensus
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The Newton County Board of Commissioners finally reached a consensus last weekend regarding minimum distances between alcohol-selling establishments and churches, libraries and schools, clearing one of the last major hurdles before a public vote on alcohol by the drink.

The county is expected to prohibit alcohol-selling establishments from being closer than 300 feet to churches, schools, libraries, public housing and alcoholic treatment centers and 100 feet from a private residence. The distance is measured from the main entrance of one building to the main entrance of the other and will apply to both restaurants sales and package sales.

The board had been debating whether to enact more stringent regulations that would have required at least 500 feet of separation for some buildings.

Commissioners Tim Fleming, Nancy Schulz and Lanier Sims said they were in favor of the 300 foot minimums, based off state regulations, at last weekend's county retreat at the FFA-FCCLA Camp on Ga. Highway 36. Sims said he was comfortable with 300 feet because measuring from door to door is more restrictive than if the county were to measure walking distance by sidewalk and street.

Commissioner Mort Ewing had requested the county look at a 500 foot requirement because he wanted to protect churches such as Salem United Methodist Church and the adjoining Salem Campground.

Ewing was open to a variance process, by which a business could request an exception to the distance requirement if it had a special circumstance, but Chairman Kathy Morgan and Fleming said they didn't like variances as a general rule. Variances may not be allowed because the allowed distances cannot be less than a state guideline.

Even if voters approve alcohol by the drink and the Sunday sale alcohol by the drink in November, those type of sales will still be limited to only a few areas in the county. Currently, alcohol sales would only be allowed along portions of the Almon Road corridor and in the Stanton Springs Industrial Park, which is undeveloped but is expected to eventually house residential, retail and light industrial uses.

As it did previously with the Almon Road corridor, the county is working to develop a zoning overlay for the Salem Road corridor. The overlay is designed to direct future growth in those areas, including the development of a town center area where commercial development and mixed-use commercial-residential development will be located.

If the public approves alcohol by the drink, the plan is for alcohol to be able to be sold in the commercial areas along Salem Road.

Alcohol sales will not be allowed everywhere in the county because commissioners want to restrict the sale of alcohol. Commissioners have said their goal is to make Newton County an option for national restaurant chains that sell alcohol while preventing the formation of bars.

In addition to limiting available locations, restaurants selling alcohol will also have to receive more than 50 percent (or more) of their revenue from food sales.

Regarding distances, the board discussed whether to apply the church distance requirement to churches that locate in shopping centers or strip malls. Because these churches can locate quickly and aren't required to get business licenses that could lead to unintended limitation placed on restaurants that would sell alcohol. Churches are supposed to get administrative use permits from the county but not all do.

Finally, the 100 foot residential requirement may have to be altered in the town center areas, because in mixed-use buildings a restaurant could be on the first floor with apartments on the second floor. State law does not include a minimum distance for residences.

County attorney Jenny Carter will work on a final copy of the ordinance to present to commissioners at an upcoming meeting. The board will still have to officially approve the ordinance and agreed upon distance requirements.