By Valerie Baldowski
Businesses serving or selling alcohol in Henry County will be allowed a little closer to area schools and churches, under an ordinance amendment adopted recently by county commissioners.
Henry County commissioners voted recently to reduce the required distance between businesses selling alcohol for consumption off premises, and local churches and schools, from 1,000 feet to 600 feet. The new regulations went into effect Tuesday, according to county officials, who added that restaurants will be exempt from the distance requirements.
County officials said the changes are aimed at easing restrictions on restaurants looking to come to Henry. County officials said that in recent years, due to Henry's explosive growth, some churches and schools have been established in emerging commercial areas.
"The county requires that all restaurants which serve alcohol for consumption on premises, must show that the majority of their sales comes from food sales, and not alcohol sales. The amendment will allow new restaurants to have greater flexibility in locating within Henry County, while continuing to protect and preserve the area adjacent to our schools and churches," Michael Harris, Henry County Planning and Zoning Services Division director, said in a statement issued by the county.
"Over the past few years, we have received numerous inquiries from both citizens, and prospective restaurants, to locate a restaurant in various locations throughout the county," Harris said. "We have several churches and schools located in or near some of our existing and emerging commercial corridors. This amendment will simply give new restaurants a little more flexibility in their site-selection process, while continuing to protect and preserve those areas immediately adjacent to the church and school facilities."
While restaurants may be able to open closer to churches and schools, those who serve alcohol inside them will still have to be 21 years old.
On Tuesday, the Henry County Commission voted to keep intact a section of the county code which regulates the age of employees who dispense, serve, sell or take orders for alcoholic beverages sold for consumption on premises. The county code states that only persons over age 21 may be employed in that capacity.
Harris and Dottie Green, the county's Occupational Tax/Alcoholic Beverage supervisor, requested the age requirement be dropped to 18.
During the meeting, Harris told the commissioners approval of the request to lower the minimum age of servers from 21 to 18 would bring Henry County into conformity with other local governments, and provide job opportunities for teens.
"The thought was for those students coming home from college to be able to work as a waiter or waitress," Harris said Wednesday. "Based on our ordinance, they can work in our restaurants, but they cannot serve alcohol."
The motion to approve the amendment as presented failed with Commissioners Reid Bowman, Johnny Basler, and Randy Stamey voting against it. Commissioners Warren Holder and Rick Jeffares voted in favor of it.
"I wasn't really in favor, but I've seen both sides [of the issue]," Basler said Wednesday. "I've seen the benefits of an 18-year-old being able to work, but I would feel more comfortable with the age of 20. There's a big difference between age 18 and 20, in terms of maturity level."
"Just because it's good in some counties, doesn't mean we need to do it here," Basler added.
Holder said Wednesday he expected dissension on the request to reduce the age requirement. "That was the issue," he said. "I knew it was going to fail. I could feel it."
The commission voted a second time, on a substitute motion Stamey made to leave the ordinance intact. The commissioners approved Stamey's motion 3-2, with Bowman, Basler and Stamey voting for, and Holder and Jeffares in opposition.
"Each commissioner had a reason as to why they did or did not support [reducing the age requirement]," said Commission Chairman Elizabeth "B.J." Mathis. "I believe it is good for citizens to see that the board isn't always in agreement. To quote the great Gen. George S. Patton, 'if everyone is thinking alike then someone isn't thinking.'"
According to county officials, the sale of distilled spirits for consumption off premises is still prohibited in Henry.
"Currently, we don't allow liquor stores in unincorporated Henry County," Harris said.