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BOC to pursue alcohol by the drink vote
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A public vote on whether to allow restaurants and hotels to sell alcohol in unincorporated Newton County is likely in 2012, after the Newton County Board of Commissioners gave a consensus Monday night to move forward on the issue.

Commissioners Tim Fleming, Nancy Schulz and Lanier Sims supported the issue at Monday's work session, with all three saying they would support both alcohol-by-the-drink sales (those in restaurants and hotels) and Sunday packaged sales of alcohol at convenience and grocery stores.

The board was noncommittal on Sunday by-the-drink sales, with Schulz saying she would not push for a vote on that issue because the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce has not pushed the issue.

Chamber President Hunter Hall said in early October that the chamber would not pursue Sunday by-the-drink sales and noted the chamber was sensitive of the opinions of local churches.

The public would vote on each alcohol question separately; the board can choose to have both questions on the same ballot or split them up for separate elections. The board did not decide whether it will have a public vote during the July primary or the November General Election.

The chamber previously said it supports holding the referendum during the November election when voter turnout is expected to be higher.

The board will have another work session in the coming weeks to discuss the issue with the chamber and to work further on the ordinance that would regulate alcohol-by-the-drink sales.

The ordinance will limit the zoning areas where alcohol can be sold and will prevent the formation of bars, by requiring that restaurants make at least 50 percent of their revenue from food sales. For hotels, only those that have a full service restaurant will be allowed to sell alcohol.

Commissioner Mort Ewing, who in the past has opposed putting alcohol by the drink on the ballot, said Monday he was aware a majority of the board wanted to move forward with a public vote.

He asked the board to consider the potential effect on the county budget and said that the costs of licensing and regulating establishments that sell alcohol as well as any public safety costs could offset additional revenue and business growth. He also asked the board to consider the distance that an establishment selling alcohol must be located from a church.

Commissioner J.C. Henderson, who has also opposed putting by-the-drink sales to a public vote, was absent.

Public hearings on the alcohol issues are also planned to be scheduled sometime in 2012 preceding the official public votes.