Questions Left By Alcohol Referendum May Drive Dade to Drink...

Chris Stone wants to sell beer and wine with his brick-oven pizza at this new pizzeria atop Lookout. Will he be able to?

The November ballot seemed to register a sea change in the way Dade County felt about alcohol. With a whopping 74.5 percent turnout, a referendum allowing liquor by the drink in this historically dry county passed in every one of the seven voting precincts. Margins were generally beyond comfortable, especially in the two Lookout Mountain precincts. West Brow said yes to liquor 70 percent to 30 percent, New Salem 66 percent to 34 percent.

But how the Dade County Commission feels about booze may turn out to be a different story--and it's the Dade County Commission calling the, ahem, shots.

"They voted can the governing authority be authorized to issue liquor licenses," said District 3 Dade Commissioner Robert Goff. "That's it."

County Executive Ted Rumley said much the same: "The way it [the referendum question] read was to give the commission authorization to issue liquor licenses in the county," he said.

And the commission is plainly in no hurry to do so. Rumley said it would be March or April before Dade is ready to issue liquor licenses. District 4 Commissioner Allan Bradford said "five or six months," and Goff hinted broadly it may be when hell freezes over.

"They wouldn't let us spell out on there two miles from the sewer, three miles from the city limits, it's got to be a major chain restaurant," said Goff, describing the restrictions commissioners had proposed for the liquor referendum. "We tried but the state said no, you can put on your referendum, 'Shall the governing authority be authorized to issue licenses.' That don't mean we ever, if I understand it right, have to issue a license."

The Planet had earlier reported that with the voters having made clear their desire to buy liquor by the drink, the commission had signaled its willingness to allow such sales and the only missing factor was a seller.

Neither of the latter two premises is turning out to be true. As evidenced by the tenor of Goff's remarks, the commission's willingness to allow liquor by the drink is far from a given; and as for the lack of a purveyor of adult beverages, what is Chris Stone, chopped liver?

"I don't want the county mad at me," said Stone, pausing to chat with The Planet from his work on the Scenic Highway building he purchased this year to house his restaurant. "If it comes to that, I won't pursue it [a liquor license]. But if it's available like it was voted in, what everybody thought they were voting on, yes, I would love to sell it."

Stone (right) had approached The Planet to take issue with a statement by his district county commissioner, Allan Bradford, that he was in no hurry to open his brick-oven pizzeria in the old Art Box building on Scenic Highway.

Stone said his ability to rush into production was in fact hampered somewhat by his full-time job as an airline pilot, but that he plans to open "The Lookout Mountain Pizza Company" as soon as he can manage the logistics. The chairs are already in the building, he said, and he's ordering the refrigeration units now.

Stone hopes to open in February or at least March, if only for one or two weekends a month--and when he does, he wants to sell beer and wine. "A big driver of that is, 95 percent of people who ask me about this, that's the first thing they ask, are we going to be able to get beer or wine with our pizza," he said.

As it stands, the answer to that question seems to be a resounding no, at least on Lookout Mountain, and at least for small businesses like Stone's. "You''ve got to go back and look at the intent," said Robert Goff. "It was to bring in these big chain restaurants."

People protested about the blue laws, said Goff: "Oh, we're never going to get an Outback. We're never going to get a Logan's." The county commission's liquor-by-the-drink resolution was to fix that, said Goff. "It wasn't about a pizza place," he said.

Goff referred to the original resolution passed by the county commission in 2015, pursuant to putting the liquor-by-the-drink referendum on this year's ballot. The resolution specifically states: "...the Board of Commissioners intends to issue such licenses under such restrictions as determined to be necessary for the health, safety, and welfare of its citizens, including but not limited to, restricting the location of such licenses to areas in close proximity to interstate exits and major thoroughfares in Dade County, and to areas in Dade County served by county or municipal sewer systems..."

It could be argued that Scenic Highway is a "major thoroughfare," if not close to an interstate exit; but there are no sewers there--or anywhere else in Dade County except for Trenton proper and the Highway 299 area at the Wildwood I-59 exit.

Chris Stone pointed out that the referendum question voters said yes to said nothing about such restrictions. In fact, it read simply: "Shall the governing authority of Dade County be authorized to issue licenses to sell distilled spirits for beverage purposes by the drink, such sales to be for consumption only on the premises?"

And that, said Stone, is what voters thought they were approving, a countywide approval of liquor by the drink. "To me, it's deceiving," he said.

District 2 Commissioner Scottie Pittman, contacted for comment, said that it was nice restaurants, not necessarily corporate chain restaurants, that the resolution was meant to enable, though he added, "You think of chain restaurants when you think of nicer restaurants."

In any case, said Pittman, the overriding principle was to prevent honky-tonk or beer-joint-style establishments from springing up throughout the county, a prospect that all the commissioners uniformly oppose.

Pittman said that the commission was still in the earliest phases of planning its liquor license issuance, and that nothing was settled yet. But he also pointed out that as things stand, the language of the referendum question does not allow for the sale of beer and wine in the county anyway, only hard liquor.

Robin Rogers, the county attorney, affirmed that. "The referendum was for distilled spirits," he said. "Georgia law has a different process for malt beverages."

He seemed to imply, though, that beer and wine sales can be approved in Dade without another referendum. "The county commission can do that by ordinance," he said.

The attorney said that state laws addressing alcohol consumption were evolving in a complicated and convoluted process--he used the word "mess"--as Georgia moves from its Prohibition-style past into a more permissive present. "It's interesting to watch," he said.

As is, indeed, the process in microcosmic Dade County. Will Dade be so anxious to prevent honky-tonks as to quash the aspirations of small businessmen like Stone?

Ted Rumley seemed to signal a yes answer on that one. "We're going to be fair about it but we're also going to stick with our resolution that we passed," said Rumley. "It's catered toward big establishments, big restaurants, not beer joints out in the middle of the county."

Stone's district commissioner, Allan Bradford, was noncommittal. "I'd rather have a couple more meetings under my belt before I say anything," he said.

Robert Goff took a harder line: "We're going to pass the ordinance that's best for the county and what the intent was, not what the intent now becomes because it passed."

And the remaining commissioner, Mitchell Smith of District 1, did not return The Planet's phone call in time for publication.

Are the commissioners denying the will of Dade citizens as expressed by the November referendum? Robert Goff says citizens have the right to express their will at county commission meetings. "You need to come to that podium over there," said Goff. "We have it every first Thursday."

The next county commission meeting is at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 5.

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