Split Board Approves Countywide Alcohol Sales Referendum

In a split vote, the Johnston County Board of Commissioners agreed Monday to place a countywide alcohol referendum before voters in November.

Vice Chairman DeVan Barbour of Benson said many towns in Johnston County have varying rules regarding alcohol and he believed a countywide referendum would “clear things up.”  He added, “Everything is different.”

Commissioner Vice Chairman DeVan Barbour of Benson discusses a countywide alcohol sales referendum at Monday’s meeting. The measure passed 5-2 sending it before voters this November. JoCoReport.com Photo
Commissioner Vice Chairman DeVan Barbour of Benson discusses a countywide alcohol sales referendum at Monday’s meeting. The measure passed 5-2 sending it before voters this November. JoCoReport.com Photo

Chairman Tony Braswell of Pine Level expressed reservations about both and on-premise and off-premise unfortified and malt beverage referendum saying it could lead to an increase in “honky-tonks” opening in rural areas of the county.  If the referendum passed, he said the only way to regulate the clubs would be with zoning and special use regulations, but the county would not able to deny the business “just because you don’t want one there.”

Braswell said he had no problem with off-premise consumption but was concerned about on-premise consumption. Other questions were raised about whether the county or state ABC commission would have any authority over convenience stores that sell beer for off-premise consumption but then decide to open up a bar and begin selling for on-premise consumption.

Other gray areas including race tracks and concert venues and whether they would or would not be able to sell beer if the referendum passed and how they would be regulated.

Commissioner Chad Stewart of Four Oaks said it was all about “fairness for everyone.”

Following a short discussion, the board voted 5-to-2 to placed an on-premise and off-premise malt beverage and unfortified wine referendum on the November ballot to let county voters decide.  Chairman Braswell and Commissioner Jeff Carver of Clayton cast the only votes against the measure.

On May 6, 1997 voters narrowly approved a mixed beverage referendum, 6175 to 6074, while rejecting a malt beverage referendum 6165 to 6080. The malt beverage referendum was again rejected in 2002.
Recent Meetings
In March, two Benson-area business owners asked the Board to consider a countywide alcohol sales referendum this Fall.  Jeremy Norris, the owner of Broadslab Distillery, and Jason Ashworth, owner of Mac’s General Merchandise, asked Commissioners on March 7th to place a referendum on the November 2016 ballot to allow residents to decide on beer and wine sales in unincorporated areas.

in April, Rev. Mark Creech, representing the Christian Action League of North Carolina spoke told commissioners he was opposed to the referendum.  Rev. Creech said there are serious harms caused by alcohol including health and public safety issues. Twenty-eight percent of all traffic fatalities in NC are tied to alcohol, he told commissioners.  Rev. Creech said the proposal to provide greater alcohol density in unincorporated areas would cause serious harm. “There is more to be considered than a business’s bottom line.”

Currently only the Cleveland and Wilders Townships allow stores to sell beer and wine.  Some convenience stores in other townships can also sell beer and wine if they have an attached restaurant with 30 percent of their sales in food.

However, the majority of businesses, like Mac’s General Merchandise, a full-line grocery store on Highway 242 South of Benson, don’t operate a restaurant.  Ashworth said people are bypassing his business to drive 6 miles into Benson to buy their groceries at stores that sell beer.  Ashworth said he has seen the trend increase over the last 10 to 15 years and he is losing sales.  He said being able to sell beer would be a benefit to him and his customers.

Commissioner Allen Mims of Clayton said in April he has heard more discussion from individuals wanting it approved than from businesses.  “I’m all for letting them vote on it.”

Commissioner Chad Stewart of Four Oaks responded by saying it was about being fair. “Why should one store be able to sell and one store can’t?”

“As a Christian and citizen I am against it,” Commissioner Godwin replied.  “As a Christian I am for it,” Stewart answered.

“As an Episcopalian I’ve had some in church,” Commissioner Mims added, bringing a chuckle from the audience.

Responding to a question from Vice Chairman DeVan Barbour in April, County Attorney Jennifer Slusser said the outcome of the referendum,  would not affect alcohol sales in city limits, only unincorporated areas.