Wildwood resident Rick Gattone asks the commission to "give the small guys a break" with its LBD ordinance. The commission clung instead to its 60-seat minimum. Also visible is Dist. 4 Commissioner Allan Bradford.
At its regular April meeting Thursday night, the Dade County Commission voted to finalize without substantial changes the liquor-by-the-drink ordinance it presented last month, though tacking on a last-minute rider to allow the sole prospective applicant for a beer-and-wine license to get around--possibly--a restriction that would have otherwise disqualified him.
At issue was the commission's requirement for establishments serving alcoholic beverages of any kind to seat a minimum of 60. Chris Stone, who hopes to open Lookout Mountain Pizza Company this spring in a 1400-square-foot building on Scenic Highway, had described his capacity as more like 30.
After parrying protests, speeches, calls and letters from the citizens group that coalesced in support of Stone's efforts, the commission on Thursday night announced that Stone could count his patio as additional seating to meet the 60-seat requirement, though declining to remove or alter that requirement.
Is it a happy ending for Stone? He hopes so. "I can stack seats up and have 60 seats on the premises, from what I understand," he said during a break in the meeting. "As long as I have 60 seats, I don't have to seat 60 people at one time. That's the way I understand it, anyway."
But during the discussion that followed an appeal to the commission by citizens group speaker Sue Gridley, Alex Case, Dade's emergency services director and incidentally the mayor of Trenton, had interjected that fire marshal and ADA (American with Disability Act) rules forbade overcrowding in restaurants. "You can't go cram a bunch of seats in there," he said.
County Attorney Robin Rogers, asked to bottom-line whether Stone could sell wine and beer or not, pronounced as follows: "The requirement is he has 60 seats. If he meets the 60-seat requirement he can, assuming he meets all the other requirements; if he doesn't have 60 seats to meet that requirement, he cannot."
So is Stone is or is he ain't able to do business as planned? "I think I is," replied Stone.
But the saga's denouement will not really emerge until Stone's application for a liquor license is accepted or denied. That consummation is now possible, said District 2 Commissioner Scottie Pittman, because in addition to passing the ordinance, the commission on Thursday night also set fees for liquor licenses.
Those fees are $1200 for on-premises beer and wine, the same amount paid by stores for package sales, and $4000 for distilled spirits, plus a $250 application fee and a $50 permit for servers. The commissioners discussed but did not finalize splitting the $1200 beer-and-wine fee and allowing vendors to pay $600 for the privilege of selling one or the other.
"Technically, tomorrow we're open for business," said Pittman.
Stone said his plan was not to apply tomorrow but "within the next couple of weeks."
He's got one or two more requirements to meet for the health department, he said, some paperwork for the state and some insurance quotes to deal with. "The main stuff is completed," he said. "My goal is to try to be open by the second weekend of May because of the Arts and Crafts festival that weekend."
Stone referred to the Mountain Art and Craft Celebration at Cloudland Canyon State Park May 13 and 14.
Realistically, said Stone, he had resigned himself to opening without the liquor license in any case.
The commission vehemently denied its 60-seat requirement was an effort to keep small businesses like Stone's from benefiting by the November referendum approving liquor by the drink.
"We're not the bad guys," said Commission Chairman Ted Rumley.
"We've been accused of stopping you from doing something and we never have," said District 3's Robert Goff. "We haven't been trying to hurt this guy named Chris Stone trying to open a pizza place. We're doing the best we can."
Goff said that the margin of people who voted for liquor by the drink was three to two. "We're still having to represent those other two over here," he said. He did not explain how the 60-seat minimum represented the interests of "those other two," except that those two were still against alcohol in any way, shape or fashion.
Rumley also made frequent reference to the board's duty to the "aginners." "I know what my job is. It's to represent everybody," he said. He said he'd been "flooded with calls " from people who didn't want adult beverages sold on county roads, and that he could have filled the room with people "throwing tomatoes at us" for allowing alcohol at all.
"Aginners" is a term used by Larry Moore, former sole commissioner of Dade County, to describe the crowds of people who swamped public meetings in protest in 1981 when package sales of beer and wine first came to Dade.
But no "aginners," tomato-tossing or otherwise, have materialized in 2017 at any commission meeting since ordinance talks began. Rather, since January a series of "fers" have spoken, at first singly and in the past two months filling the room.
Thursday night, in addition to Sue Gridley, who spoke during the workshop part of the meeting for Concerned Citizens Who Voted Yes, Wildwood resident Rick Gattone stood up to encourage the commission: "Give the small guys a break."
Tourism is blossoming these days in Dade, said Gattone, and tourists do not come here to eat at the large corporate chains the ordinance's high-seating requirement seems designed to favor. "They want the local flavor," he said.
Attorney Rogers (at left, with Robert Goff's right ear) said he had arrived at the 60-seat minimum by averaging out restrictions he found in other counties' ordinances. "Sixty is pretty much right in the middle," he said. "That's what I try to do."
Rogers said there was no minimum requirement for seating in the state statute. Trenton's independent ordinance allowing on-premise wine and beer within the city limits, passed in 2010, has none.
The commissioners expressed themselves willing to hear any requests for a variance from their requirements case by case--"This ordinance is more or less a living document," said District 1 Commissioner Mitchell Smith--but clung tenaciously to their seating restriction. "We've made this as minimum as we feel we can," said Chairman Rumley.
On another proviso, the requirement that any distilled spirits be sold only by establishments next to the interstate, the commissioners seemed even less inclined to compromise. "It takes very little of your liquor to make a person drunk," explained
Rumley, adding that ease in patrolling was the rationale behind restricting hard liquor sales in this fashion. "The sheriff didn't want it anyway, any of it," he said.
Johnny Holland, owner of the Canyon Grill, located on Lookout Mountain far from the interstate, had appealed this restriction in a letter to the commission last month. Chris
Stone brought up the Canyon Grill's plight during the discussion.
Citizens group members reminded the commissioners they were bound to carry out the will of the majority of residents who had voted yes to liquor by the drink. Chairman Rumley reminded the citizens that what they had voted on was to give the commission the authority to issue licenses.
"That's the way it is," he said.