Downtown restaurants get OK for private clubs

Approval comes after two hours of debate, comments from 36 people

By BRUCE ALSOBROOK | News-Telegram Managing Editor

Jan 9, 2008 - Sulphur Springs City Council members evened the playing field for downtown restaurants Tuesday night, giving them the same right to apply for private club license as other eateries in town.

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This building on Main Street is in line to become a winery following the passage of an ordinance Tuesday night that will allow downtown restaurants to seek private beverage club licenses. Downtown restaurants, unlike other eateries in the city, were prohibited under old zoning classifications from starting private clubs under the old rules.

The zoning change passed by a 4-2 vote, with one abstention, after two hours of often passionate debate, usually pitting the dangers of alcohol vs. the right to choose.

About 100 people filled the council chambers, with dozens more listening on sound systems piping the meeting audio into the outside foyers. A total of 38 speakers addressed the council — 25 opposing the ordinance, 13 supporting approval — with many quoting Bible scripture in support of their views.

Supporters of the zoning change believe the measure will bring more investment and visitors to the downtown area, giving all businesses the central commercial district a boost. Opponents argued the availability of alcohol will have a decaying effect on the area and only promote more alcoholism and drug addiction.

"The Bible says wine is a mocker, strong drink is a brawler, and whoever is intoxicated is not wise," said the Rev. Larry Jordan, pastor of New Beginnings Fellowship Baptist Church, the third person to speak on the issue.

Jordan's emotions echoed those of many who spoke out against the zoning change.

"I know you're looking at the finest product of the brewer's art. I know you're looking at the economy and what it will do to stimulate our economy," Jordan continued. "I want to see the square beautified. I want to see our economy continue to go forward. But at the same time, let's look past the finest product that the brewer's offer, and let's look to the finished product of the brewer's art, and come down to Friday night recovery group, where we have 100-plus people that are trying to get off of alcohol ... this scourge that they're on.

"For every dollar it will bring in in revenue, you have to pay out $8 to clean up the mess, and I'm not just talking about the mess of the litter. I'm talking about scraping people up with a shovel off the highway because of accidents. I'm talking about the extra policemen. I'm talking about our tax dollars being used because we're having to finance this with our prisons, and our jails, and people on welfare because their mind has been blown because of alcohol. The number one drug in America is alcohol."

Jordan, as many other opponents of the ordinance, stated his belief in the teachings of Christianity led him to his stance on the issue.

"I take God's word," he said. "If God says it, that settles it. Whether we believe it or not, that settles it. He's the authority. If we go against the authority, we're in rebellion. But the Bible says "Woe to you who make your neighbors drink, who mix your venom even to make them drunk, so as to look on their nakedness, you'll be filled with disgrace rather than honor.'"

Rita Edwards, president of the Downtown Business Alliance,  the driving force behind the efforts to revitalized the downtown district, countered that the issue at hand was not alcoholism or drug abuse.

"We've visited a lot of towns that have gone through the same growing pains that we're going through — Winnsboro, Mineola, Quitman, Rockwall, towns that their downtown has withered away," Edwards said. "When they started their revitalization, every one of them told us, the turning point was when they allowed their restaurants to serve wine or beer. We asked about the increase in crime, and they said there was no increase in alcohol-related crimes. The only increase was in revenue and employment. I want you to consider that.

"We have a lot of really good businesses that have expressed interest in downtown, especially since they have heard that we have three restaurants that want to come downtown that want to serve wine and beer, because they know from other towns that the crowd is there," she added. "Friday night in Winnsboro, it was standing room only at the [Lou Viney's] winery. A lot of those people were from Sulphur Springs. We need to keep that money in Sulphur Springs. So think about the future economics, as well as the well-being of our downtown."

Phil Smith, a local attorney, urged the council to vote against "this very unwise suggestion."

"I'd say 90 to 95 percent of all the criminals that I represent somehow there was alcohol or drugs involved," he said. "Plus the fact that almost all the family violence, rapes, sexual crimes against children, statistics show that alcohol is involved in a great majority of those."

Smith also suggested the ordinance would violate laws that prohibit alcohol being served in business less than 300 feet from churches.

"We've got First Baptist Church, Fellowship Christian, First Methodist ringing the downtown area," he said. "The laws that I know about alcohol says you got to be so many feet from a church in order to have an alcohol license."

Smith may have been referring to a section of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code that empowers cities to set such limits within their corporate limits. The city of Sulphur Springs has not previously approved such a measure, however.

Charles Oxford presented a petition he said contained 774 names asking the council to create ordinances necessary to prevent the sale and consumption of alcohol on or around the square or with 500 feet of any church, school or residence. The petition, he said, also called for the sale of any alcohol beverages in the city only be allowed after election decided by registered voters in the city of Sulphur Springs.

"This issue is about morality, decency, children's environment and safety for all of us," he said. 

"This is not the only nor best way to revitalize the square. It isn't the way to do it at all. There are many steps that could be utilized to achieve that goal, none of which have been exercised," Oxford added. He did not elaborate.

Oxford also intimated passage of the ordinance could result in a lawsuit.

"If this current strategy is pursued, you could well find yourself in a prolonged quagmire of legal battles which would be counterproductive and expensive to the city," he said.

But others asked the council to give them the right to choose whether or not they want to have wine or other alcoholic beverages at a restaurant.

"As an American, I have legal choices that I don't wish to exercise," said Judy Gilreath, who owns Judy's Kitchen. "These are legal things that I choose not to participate in. But I will not now, or ever, impose my value system on anyone, nor do I want anyone to impose their value system on me."

She also pointed out that the City Council must still grant specific use permits before a business can apply for a private club license, a process she went through herself.

"You have the power to control the businesses that might come to downtown commercial area if you pass this ordinance," Gilreath said. "There are the specific use permits that you grant that would allow a business to come or not to come. You have that power. You do hold the authority to police what businesses are allowed in downtown Sulphur Springs."

Councilman Garry Jordan questioned whether that was true in practice, however. Jordan said it was his understanding that as long as a business met certain legal requirements the city could not deny a permit.

"You've told us yourself that once they've got everybody squared away, it really doesn't matter, as long as it's pretty much said and done once they meet those requirements, isn't that correct?"Jordan asked, addressing City Attorney Jim McLeroy.

Not necessarily, McLeroy responded.

"I've had councils grant them and I've had councils deny them," the city attorney responded. "I send you a letter with each one that comes through, where we have done a health inspection, we have a report from the police department, and we have a report from the fire department. And I send you a letter that tells you whether or not there is a legal defect that we can identify in the application."

"But we would probably be under a legal battle if we actually turn one of them down, is that right?" Jordan asked.

"Yes, but if you go read the case law, because alcohol is what it is, you can turn them down and survive the challenge," McLeroy said. "There is not a property right associated with alcohol. It is purely a license right that the city council can bestow. Consequently, you can say yes to the license or you can say no to the license."

The city could be subject to a challenge if it granted a license to one business that met all the qualifications but turned down another that also met the requirements, McLeroy indicated.

"We've never faced one of those challenges," the city attorney said. "The law goes both ways on those challenges. Some are sustained, and some are overruled."

Another supporter of the zoning change was Darren Humphrey, who lives near Pickton and is planning to open a restaurant after refurbishing the former Nelson's Corner Drug building. He also vented some frustration when addressing the council.

"As U.S. Army veteran, I am dismayed that the rights that I fought for can be taken away by any group of people," Humphrey said. "What are our veterans fighting for when a group of people can take away our right of choice. When we sit back and allow this to happen, we are no better than a Communist country.

"If you choose not to consume, that's your right. But you do NOT have the right to choose for someone else."

He said the city can flourish when more restaurants bring more tax dollars and visitors to Sulphur Springs — and perhaps fewer businesses shutting down.

"As I understand, we've had three business closures in Sulphur Springs in the last week, and some in the downtown area are looking to close because there not making any money because there aren't enough people to buy," he said.

He also took exception to the arguments that the mere presence of alcohol downtown would cause people to drink to excess.

�The sin is not in the consumption of alcohol, but in the overindulgence,� he said. �Restaurants are controlled environments with responsible alcohol service, regulated by the state of Texas, and should not be equated to bars.

"Give us our choice. Without a yes vote, you set the city backwards in time. How many other Texas towns have become ghost towns because of the lack of tourism and business growth? Will we be added to that list of ghost towns?"

Councilman Clay Walker told the audience that the downtown needed a boost, that more business in recent times have closed than have moved in.

"The downtown area, you might describe it as blighted,” he said.

Walker said alcoholism and drug abuse exists in his family, so he understands the concerns of those who opposed the ordinance.

"But their alcoholism and drug abuse was not caused by the place they go to got the alcohol or the drugs,” Walker said. "People in this room are very passionate about this issue because of their personal experiences. Some view downtown, if this passes, becoming a skid row, with the winos laying around and drinking out of a bottle in a sack. Others see a few nice restaurants with people who have moved here, and retired around Lake Fork, people who would drive 30 and 40 miles to have a nice meal and spend some money in our community.”

Sulphur Springs is “kind of blessed,” he said, in that it is smaller and perhaps more manageable than central areas in cities such as Paris and Greenville in a way.

�We might be able to rebuild the core of this town,� he said. �But we can't rebuild the core of this town without the ability for a product to be sold there, a product that will make people enough money to invest their money in downtown.�

�I think this is the only chance we've got to revive the core of our town, and I think it's going to be good for everybody,� Walker continued. �I understand and appreciate the good work that the people have talked her do .. with respect to drug addiction and alcoholism.

�But I think this is the only chance we've got to get some development downtown, and have money spent downtown and do some good downtown.�

The measure passed by a 4-2 vote, with Jordan and Freddie Taylor opposing the ordinance. Mayor Yolanda Williams abstained from voting.

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