Fort Payne City Council President Walter Watson said his desire to hold off on a vote on a proposed ordinance to expand the boundaries of the “historic district” isn’t about containing the number of downtown businesses selling alcoholic beverages, but about keeping promises made to churches in the city years ago.
City Clerk Andy Parker disagreed, saying “It is about alcohol because if the restaurant being discussed was zoned to be a restaurant and said, ‘All we’re going to want to sell is iced tea,’ we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”
On Nov. 2, 2004, Fort Payne voters approved citywide legal alcohol sales by a vote of 2,610 to 2,462. Several local churches opposed this, but the first legal public sale of alcohol in the city in more than 100 years started in January 2005. The council created a 200-foot “buffer” by ordinance to shield existing churches from bars opening but the historic district over-rules this, thus the recommendation of the alcohol sales licensing committee to expand the district’s boundaries to accommodate new restaurants wanting to offer alcohol to guests.
City Attorney Rocky Watson told Council President Watson “every law is amendable when the facts change, but it’s not like we made an agreement that we’re now trying to go back on. That’s not what’s happening. It’s simply a law and the question is, do you want to amend the law to change where alcohol can be sold? There’s some concern, although I don’t know of any challenge in the state of Alabama, that [the 200-foot buffer specifically for houses of worship] may be unconstitutional because it is the recognition of a religion by government. So if anyone challenged it, which I don’t think they would, that might create some problems in and of itself.”
Council President Watson said he didn’t seem any harm in postponing a vote until the next meeting despite Tuesday being the second reading of the ordinance, which is all that is required without the Council suspending its own rules to take action on first mention in a public meeting.
He said, “I was on the Council when had that discussion and we did an agreement -- an ordinance or law, whatever -- with the citizens of Fort Payne that we would maintain this. We should continue that and look for a work-around.”
Parker serves on the committee and asked for clarity about its authority.
“That committee was put in place to be a buffer between the public and all of us so the details would be worked out there. Going forward, if an issue comes to the committee, are we wasting our time putting it on the agenda? I’m not following what we’re doing here,” he said.
Watson conceded the committee does “an excellent job of keeping [alcoholic product packaging] out where you don’t see it and monitoring what goes out well. You don’t really see it so people get a chance to enjoy themselves. We just want to make sure we don’t overlook anyone. I have a special interest in churches as a pastor of one, but as Rocky said, that has no bearing on what we do in government. We need to let everyone know we are looking at this without sliding anything in. Andy, I don’t want to kill anything that you guys have done because you’ve worked hard to make sure this thing works, but I do want operate in the favor, in the interest of showing everyone that we are concerned.”
Council member John Smith motioned to table to ordinance and discuss it in greater depth in a work session. Before that could be voted on, Fort Payne Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jennifer McCurdy stood from the audience to ask “what supporting documents are needed to move this forward? Trust in the community is very important, but from where I stand, our community has very different opinions on things, and I don’t think we can get everyone’s opinion and get everyone to agree on everything. In the meantime, we do have a Chamber of Commerce member who would like to move his business, and he would be directly affected by the 200 feet ordinance because it is within that distance of a church. Not one of the ones on Grand Avenue, but on First Street.”
Roadside ‘Que owner Justin Christman stood at the speaker’s podium and told Watson he feared losing a desired location to another tenant if he is forced to wait for an outcome. Operating for three years, the barbecue restaurant sells beer and wine to its patrons.
Owner Justin Christman said, “We would like to move downtown and have looked at a location. We submitted my business plan to a bank and have gotten preliminary approval to move forward with financing on this project. We feel that we would be an asset to the downtown area and this motion should be passed today because anything can change and the sooner we are able to secure our financing, the better off we’ll be to move forward. We feel strongly that this motion is for the benefit of the city and with respect to the churches, there’s a place for both of us at the table. It’s not our primary focus, but when tourists visit our town, if they want to sit and enjoy a beer or two, we should be allowed to let them do that.”
The Council ultimately approved a limited portion of the committee’s recommendation, agreeing to include the east side of First Street between Gault and Godfrey Avenues to accommodate an existing restaurant already licensed to sell alcoholic beverages that wants to relocate to downtown from another part of the city. John Smith voted in opposition. It was mentioned that at least one other former restaurant on the opposite side of First Street seeks to reopen with beer and wine on the menu, and it is within the 200-feet of First Baptist Church of Fort Payne.
The next council meeting will be Dec. 21 at 12:30 p.m. in the Council chambers on the second floor of City Hall. Meetings are streamed live on FPTV at https://bit.ly/FPCouncil.