Siler City, Chatham County considering referendum on beer sales

Posted 7/5/19

The town of Siler City is investigating placing a referendum on the 2019 municipal ballot that would allow voters to decide if malt beverages, such a beer, and table [unfortified] wine can be sold in …

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Siler City, Chatham County considering referendum on beer sales

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The town of Siler City is investigating placing a referendum on the 2019 municipal ballot that would allow voters to decide if malt beverages, such a beer, and table [unfortified] wine can be sold in establishments such as tasting rooms or breweries, rather than only in restaurants and hotels.

Chatham County is considering the same for the 2020 election.

North Carolina laws regarding alcohol sales are different than other state laws, according to Kat Haney, Public Affairs Officer for the N.C. ABC (Alcohol Beverage Control) Commission. Rather than the state making a law for all its jurisdictions to follow, North Carolina has created a set of guidelines that outline the extent to which a jurisdiction can allow alcohol sales. It is then up to each county or municipality to put those options up to a vote.

That means each county and each town within those counties can have a variety of rules when it comes to the sale of alcohol.

A county can choose to create an ABC Board to manage an ABC Store which sells spirituous liquor and set policy and adopt rules pertaining to alcohol sales. A municipality can choose to do the same. In North Carolina, some county’s choose to manage all the alcohol sales while in others, only the municipalities have ABC Boards. In some, both the county and municipalities have ABC Boards, as is the case in Chatham County.

Typically, if a county conducts a referendum on alcohol sales, the results of the referendum apply to all the municipalities. But if a town has held its own referendum, the results of that vote govern the rules in its jurisdiction. As a result, you may have a patchwork of laws in a county that govern alcohol sales that are completely different.

For example, the town of Pittsboro voted in 1971 to allow the sale of beer and wine both for off-premises sales, which means retail sales such as at a grocery store or gas station, and on-premises sales, such as at a restaurant, brewery, or tasting room. In 1984, a Chatham County referendum on allowing on-premises sales of malt beverages failed.

Because Siler City never held its own referendum, the town was in the “same boat” as the county, according to William Morgan, Siler City’s town attorney.

In 2009, Chatham County placed a referendum on the ballot asking voters to choose if mixed beverages — or liquor by the drink — could be sold in establishments that serve food or in a hotel per the state’s guidelines. It passed with 65 percent support, so the county’s referendum superseded the alcohol rules in Chatham’s municipalities. But the vote did not address malt beverage sales specifically. So while it allowed for establishments that qualify to obtain an ABC permit for on premise liquor sales, it did not afford the ability for a business, such as a brewery or tap room that does not serve food, to sell beer.

Siler City’s efforts

According to the Brewers Association, a national trade group, North Carolina ranks seventh nationally for the number of breweries that brew and sell craft beer in the state, with craft beer sales creating an economic impact of $2 billion annually. It also accounts for $300 million in annual wages and 12,000 jobs. Last month, Siler City’s Downtown Advisory Committee asked the town to consider a referendum vote to “open opportunity, provide encouragement and draw investment from the fast-growing segment of the beer, wine, and spirits market; especially craft beer breweries and taprooms.”

The committee’s members include Jackie Adams, owner of the Oasis Open Air Market; Tim Booras, co-owner of the Chatham-Siler City Advanced Manufacturing Site; and Wren Farrar, property manager for the Wren Family Estate, who has been revamping and rehabilitating several properties in downtown Siler City. The group notes that its goal is to “enhance the vibrancy of downtown by drawing new customer base and more retail consumers to downtown.”

The Siler City Board of Commissioners provided a general consent to place the item on the ballot and directed staff to research the process and determine how the board needs to proceed. In email communications between Roy Lynch, Siler City’s finance director — who is serving as interim town manager — and Pandora Paschal, executive director of the Chatham County Board of Elections, Paschal provided basic language that would need to be included as well as a deadline for submission. The language on the referendum would need to specifically say whether it would permit on-premises and/or off-premises sales of malt beverages and/or unfortified wine.

“There is not a specific time in the statues to have the request (resolution) from the Town Board to the County Board of Elections; however for administrative purposes we are asking that you have the resolution, which will include the language for the ballot in the Board of Elections office by the close of the day on July 19, 2019,” Paschal wrote in the email.

The July 19 deadline coincides with the final day of candidate filing for the 2019 municipal elections. The Siler City Board of Commissioners meets July 15, when the item is likely to be discussed and deliberated.

Chatham County

In March, Chatham County Commissioner Karen Howard received correspondence from a constituent, Scott Pearce, owner and president of For Garden’s Sake on N.C. Hwy. 751, expressing his desire to open up the garden center for special events. Upon requesting an ABC permit, he was told that because his business was in Chatham County’s jurisdiction, it would only be allowed to sell wine. Pearce asked Howard to find out “what we might be able to do to get this changed as it must be a challenge for others as well and doesn’t seem to make sense.”

As a result of the inquiry, Howard requested the county staff and county attorney investigate. Staff quickly found that Chatham County was in the same situation as Siler City. While the issue has not yet been placed in front of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners for their deliberation, staff is currently working to draft a proposal for the board’s consideration.

Any referendum held by Chatham County would likely not occur until the 2020 election, according to Lindsay Ray, clerk to the Chatham County Board of Commissioners. The reason is two-fold. First, if the referendum vote occurred in 2019, the county would have to open up all its polling sites for Election Day at great expense. Since 2019 is a municipal election year, the county only has to open polling sites in the jurisdictions that are holding elections. Second, because county residents outside of the municipalities would not have any other vote to cast other than the referendum, turnout among those residents may be low. Ray did not have any additional information about when the item may come to the board.

Reporter Casey Mann can be reached at CaseyMann@Chathamnr.com.

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