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Alcohol regulations down to one version
Proposal: Under 21 must be out of wet restaurants by 11 p.m.
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City Council members who took part in the latest work session for a new Statesboro Alcoholic Beverages Ordinance favored  setting a definite time – the time discussed was 11 p.m. – for restaurants that serve alcohol to stop admitting anyone under age 21.

For establishments that do not qualify as restaurants but have pouring licenses, the time for adults under 21 to enter will apparently be never.

When Tuesday morning’s session began, the new ordinance as drafted by City Attorney Alvin Leaphart still existed in two different versions. The “less permissive” option will ban customers under 21 from places classed as bars, nightclubs or lounges altogether. The “more permissive” option would have let them in if they were assigned special wristbands and other conditions were met.

“All the discussion I heard today was the less permissive option,” Leaphart told council members as the session drew to a close.

This, by council members’ request, is the version he will be revising to present to them soon.

The narrowing down came two weeks after a new Georgia law, inspired by events in Statesboro, took effect. It prohibits people under the legal drinking age of 21 from entering bars anyway.

But the state’s new law defines bars as places that earn at least 75 percent of their money from serving alcoholic beverages. A city could define bars differently, as long as it is not more permissive than the state.

Statesboro’s current ordinance makes all places with pouring licenses restaurants, including those that make more than 50 percent of their revenue from food, as well as “sports restaurants” that need only have a food permit.

 

Long in the works

The council started looking at revisions to the ordinance after city officials sought orders from the Bulloch County Superior Court to close down the Platinum Lounge and the Prime Time Lounge in November 2013. This followed repeated gun violence, with one death at each club and others injured, in 2012 and 2013.

Another death, of an 18-year-old Georgia Southern University freshman after hands-on violence at Rude Rudy’s nightclub last August, prompted the surrender of the club’s license. An internal investigation of the city’s handing of the minimum drinking age then revealed lapses in enforcement and previous changes that weakened the ordinance.

The current ordinance makes the granting of alcoholic beverage licenses automatic by the city clerk after the applicants meet basic legal requirements.

The new ordinance, as Leaphart drafted it, would restore a role in the process for City Council, which will conduct a hearing before voting whether to grant a license. Council may evaluate how a person applying for a license has operated a past business or how the restaurant or bar may affect the neighborhood around it, Leaphart said.

The proposed ordinance takes a similar judgment-call approach to whether a “restaurant” is really a bar, a nightclub or a lounge. Owners could appeal the public safety director’s ruling to the city manager, possibly next to the City Council and potentially to the Bulloch County Superior Court.

 

The 18-20 bracket

As at the previous work session in May, much of Tuesday’s discussion focused on when 18- to 20-year-olds will be allowed in places that still qualify as restaurants.

Councilman Will Britt commented that the proposed restrictions would change long-held ideology in Statesboro, which has allowed this age group, while too young to drink, to go to these restaurants for music and other entertainment.

“In the past, if you were 19 years old and a student at Georgia Southern and you went out and you really didn’t do anything stupid, you went out and had a good time and you went home,” Britt said.

He said he had had no problem with this, and wanted everyone to make the change consciously if that is to happen. The real question, Britt said, was whether owners of places such as Rusty’s Tavern and Gnat’s Landing will now have to choose whether they will admit only patrons 21 and over or be responsible for keeping younger people out after a certain time.

Councilman Phil Boyum had suggested that Statesboro adopt an approach, like Savannah’s, of having restaurants fall under bar rules – with nobody under 21 admitted – after their kitchens close.

But Tuesday he proposed simplifying this with a fixed time, saying “no more people under 21 after 11 o’clock, even if your kitchen’s open.”

Gnat’s Landing owner Al Chapman expressed alarm at the prospect of having to check identification of 200 customers at 11 p.m. on a busy night, or facing consequences if police find underage customers.

“By the time I check all the ID’s, how long will that take me, every table, and if someone goes to the bathroom, I miss that table…,” he said. “Who enforces it, is it me?

But Leaphart said the proposal is a “regulatory scheme” and not a criminal law like the one against serving alcohol to those under age. Police would not take action against a restaurant owner for a single instance of having an underage customer in after 11 p.m., but for multiple incidents over time, said Statesboro Police Major Rob Bryan.

“If one person in the entire crowd of several hundred people got missed, that’s not a violation, that is an oversight,” Bryan said.

Restaurants will be held responsible for “letting in, not kicking out,” Boyum said. Mayor Jan Moore called for placing the responsibility for leaving on time on the customers under age 21.

 

Nearly ready

Councilman Travis Chance said he wanted only the less-permissive option left.

“Any decision we make, if anybody reads from the more permissive, we are automatically, by default, saying we approve of underage drinking, which I don’t think anyone up here does,” Chance  said.

Councilman John Riggs agreed.

However, Chance cautioned that the amount of discretion the proposed ordinance grants police will lead to complaints about fairness.

Bob Mikell, chairman of the Government and Community Relations Committee of the Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce, read the council a letter from the chamber that was published in the Herald in November. It had urged meaningful review of the ordinance “over the next few weeks.”

“In my opinion, it looks like council is moving towards, and I’m hopeful, getting an alcohol ordinance that’s clear,” Moore said after the meeting. “It defines what’s a bar, what’s a restaurant, and who can go in either, and when they can go in there.”

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.

 

 

 

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