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City Makes Concessions With Beer Ordinance

James Person (right), a Water Valley native and retired government employee, questioned aldermen on several of the beer and light wine ordinance issues brought up at the January meeting of the board. – Photos by Jack Gurner

John Crow of the Crow-Martin Law Firm (left center) said that Water Valley’s beer and light wine ordinance was “beer light” when compared to ordinances from other cities in the area.

Long time resident Snooky Williams said that he had read the ordinance and considered it ridiculous. “It’s directed at more power for the mayor and the board.”

By Jack Gurner

WATER VALLEY – City officials are lowering the business license fee and sales reporting requirements for beer and light wine sellers.

            The recommendation by Mayor Larry Hart that the license fee be returned to the original $15 from $250 and reporting of sales figures be reduced from quarterly to yearly came during the regular first Tuesday meeting of the mayor and board of aldermen Feb. 3.

            It was the second month that a large group of people had attended a city board meeting in opposition of the city’s newly revised and expanded beer and light wine ordinance. In January, a standing-room only crowd was on hand to hear Justin Showah, owner of the Crawdad Hole, address aldermen about several items in the ordinance that affected his business.

            During that meeting, the mayor announced “a little cleaning up” that included allowing beer or light wine to be served in anticipation of a meal and not simultaneously with the food. Another change was to allow off premises sales of some single packaged items.

            This month, James Person, a Water Valley native and retired government employee, appeared before aldermen to question several issues brought up at the January meeting about the newly updated and expanded beer ordinance. He asked why the city needed detailed sales information from businesses that sell beer and why is the license fee for businesses selling beer about ten times higher than for other businesses. “If I understand Mr. Mayor, you said, ‘The city will look at it.'”

            “And, why would the business selling beer and light wine have to have two restroom,” he continued. “when other businesses in town do not.”

            Person said there was some discussion about the two-restroom issue and a comment was made that the business in question, the Crawdad Hole, was “grandfathered” in. “Where is that covered,” he asked.

            Other questions included why were visual ads (signs) not permitted; what was the rationale for setting the distance between churches and businesses selling beer; and why the prohibition on selling cold beer for off premises consumption.

            He concluded with a comment about the “noise” portion of the ordinance. “Somebody (referring to a city official) said that noise was subjective,” Person noted. “And, it may be. But sound is objective. It can be measured.”

            “I just wanted to know what was being done about these things that were addressed last month,” said Person.

            “Ok, we’ll address them,” said Mayor Larry Hart, who had been taking notes during Person’s presentation.

            “The fees and the reports,” the mayor continued. “Justin and I were able to get together during the interim and discuss those and I am going to recommend to the board tonight that we reduce the fee back to where they were at $15.”

            “And then the reporting was perhaps a little bit cumbersome,” Hart said. “I am going to recommend to the board that we do the reports annually.”

            The mayor added that should something necessitate additional reporting, the clerk could request more frequent reports on sales. Hart then asked board attorney John Crow to address “grandfathering.”

            Crow said that a grandfather clause was not needed in the ordinance because general law covers those who are already in operation if something changes. “That term has been used for decades. You’re grandfathered in to the terms of the prior ordinance.”

            Hart also noted that the grandfather clause would apply in the case of a waiver granted by a church.

            The mayor said that as a side note on restrooms, the building code requires that if employees count “15 or above traffic” the business is required to have two restrooms. According to the International Building Code website, separate facilities are needed for male and female customers and one restroom is required for every 75 male customers and one for every 75 female customers.

            The mayor then moved to Person’s question about advertising (signs). “There have been two separate administrations deal with this ordinance; ten aldermen, two mayors, two board attorneys,” he continued, and said that the original one put in the provision about advertising.

            The rationale, he believed, was to hold down on some of the things you see in some towns. “Banners flying and that sort of thing.”

            “That was part of the original ordinance and we haven’t done anything with that to speak of,” said Hart.

            The mayor then moved to the requirement that there be a 150-foot distance from a church to a business serving beer. “The original footage for an on-premise permit from a church was 250 feet,” he said.

            Hart explained that the past administration dropped the distance to accommodate a restaurant that was less than 250 feet from North Main Methodist Church. This administration, Hart added, has put in the church wavier, which eliminates the district requirement if the church grants the waiver.

            The noise control portion of the ordinance was a more difficult issue that required several minutes of discussion. “I know when it is loud to my ears,” the mayor said.

            As the noise discussion drew to a close, Hart asked aldermen if there was anything in the ordinance they would like to change. Alderman Larry Bell brought up the restroom issue and asked if any of the ladies present would want to use a restroom after a man had just used it.

            “Our church has unisex bathrooms and nobody complains,” answered Sara Nell Champion.

            “But, that’s in the church,” Bell said. “That’s not out in the public.”

            After Bell’s statement there were no other comments from aldermen.

            Hart reiterated his recommendations that the business license fee be reduced to $15 for both on-premise and off-premise sales and that the reports on sales figures be reduced from quarterly to annual.

            Alderman Donald Gray said that the reports would be “on a city provided form, so it won’t be that detailed. I don’t think we’re trying to find out what kind of profit anybody is making. It’s just to make sure they meet the requirement of the 50 percent.”

            “Y’all think that should be public record,” questioned Showah.

            “It is public record,” answered Crow.

            Showah disagreed and after a back-and-forth, the mayor said that we have our legal opinion here. “Justin, I want you to be happy, buddy. But, what John is saying is you could challenge that with legal counsel.”

            Crow suggested that a computer search would find a number of beer and light wine ordinances. “If you compare this ordinance with Senatobia’s, Fulton’s, or Corinth’s…I’ve looked at 25 or 30 ordinances…this is beer light,” he said. “Go to Oxford and see what you get.”

            The board attorney explained that in Oxford there is a compliance officer and before a business is allowed to sell beer, attendance at compliance school is required.

            “That’s why we live here,” Showah said, drawing a laugh from the room.

            After several more minutes of back and forth including a comment from Snooky Williams, who said he had read the ordinance and considered it ridiculous, Crow said, “That is what government is; regulation.”

            “Unfortunately, Snooky, you and I have to pay for problems created by others,” Crow said, and while he tried to explain that the ordinance was not aimed at anyone in particular, Williams interrupted.

            “John, this is not a fair ordinance,” said Williams, a long-time Water Valley business man. “It’s directed at more power for the mayor and the board. It is picking on people. It’s keeping businesses from coming to Water Valley.”

            “If this board had my recommendation, I’d do away with that amendment and I’d write a new one,” Williams added. “I’ve talked with other legal authorities, too and they laugh at this amendment.”

            “Everybody’s got an opinion, Snooky, and I respect yours,” Crow said. “I’ve known you for 50 years and you are way high up on my list. There are three entities in this town that sell alcohol with meals and I think they are first class organizations. But, when you get the fourth one and the fifth one and the sixth one and the seventh one and the eighth one…that’s where sometimes the problems start.”

            “And unless you have regulation like this you are going to have problems,” Crow continued. “You can remember how it was here in the 80’s where you had problems in areas of the town with violence. We’ve had violence in the past two or three years here under the old ordinance. Unfortunately, Snooky, like I said, you and I are going to have to pay for the actions of other people.”

            After some additional back and forth, including comments on ordinances from other towns, Betsy Persons, wife of James Persons, asked why would we care about ordinances from other towns. “Why don’t we craft an ordinance that works for Water Valley.”

            Her comment drew applause from the crowd.

            Mayor Hart rejoined the conversation and said, “There were a lot of discussions I’m sure back when the first ordinance was done.”

            He added that he was not mayor and was not on the board and had no involvement with the first ordinance. “Those guys did a great job under the leadership of David Burns (former attorney for the board) who is now deceased crafting this ordinance, putting it together and taking the input. We’ve come along and done the things that we’ve done to it, whether you like it or don’t like it…agree or don’t agree.”

            “We’ve tried to consider the entire community,” said Hart, putting emphasis on the word, entire. “The entire community has to be considered. John (Crow) alluded to the future. We’ve got good proprietors right now. One day we are going to have a bad proprietor somewhere and we are going to need to have the capacity to deal with it and enforce.”

            “I think personally…and this board can speak to it…I believe we have a good ordinance. It’s not the perfect world ordinance, but it’s a good ordinance. It’s a workable ordinance. It’s an ordinance that certainly does not prohibit anybody from coming here and doing business if they sincerely want to come here and try to make money and make a business here.”

            “So, my recommendation then to the board is that we make these two changes,” said Hart. “And, again, hoping that it gives some relief where relief is desired on the fees and the reports.”

            The mayor turned to the aldermen and asked if they had anything else they wanted to include in the recommendation being put before the board. Several responded that they did not.

            He then asked board attorney Crow to craft the amendment with the recommended changes.

            “Then I want to encourage everybody to take this ordinance and get on with life,” Hart said.  “Let’s make it work. It’s our community. We’re not going to have the perfect one, but it’s done pretty good. We’re got a lot of good things going for our community. We’ve got Main Street, we’ve got chamber…so many good things.”

            “We’re not enemies,” the mayor concluded. “This board…I think we have about 20-something more meetings left. Maybe there will be some relief. It may be that some of you may want to come to Water Valley and sign up and be a candidate for office if this is too painful or not right or whatever it may be. But, I believe…this board and myself…believe we’ve got something we can work with.”

            Hart asked the board if there was anything else and Alderman Larry Bell replied, “I think that it is good that we have people who have grievances come to the board meetings. If you have a grievance, come let us know. We think we are doing a pretty good job because nobody comes.”

            One of the convenience store operators asked, “Can we have cold beer in Water Valley?”

            “No sir,” Hart responded immediately. “Not under this ordinance.”

            When questioned further, the mayor suggested that he get on the agenda and ask the question.

            The final comment of the night was offered by Rex Howell, who asked that some consideration be given to businesses that would like to have a band play until midnight instead of 11 p.m.

            The mayor then thanked James Person for appearing and invited the crowd to stay and hear the other items on the agenda.

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