Canton passes alcohol ordinance amendment

Aug 17, 2014

CANTON — Despite fierce community opposition, the Canton Board of Aldermen passed an ordinance amendment to allow the possession and consumption of alcohol at board-approved special events in town.

Though the town has already sounded off on the issue at one public hearing, a second one was scheduled before the board made a decision at the meeting Thursday night.

The amendment gives the board authority to allow events to serve alcohol on town property and on property right of ways. According to the drafted ordinance as presented by Town Manager Seth Hendler-Voss, there would be strict safe guards to ensure public safety and that all legal criteria are met before any such event is allowed.

He also stressed that a special event policy will be created to put those safe guards in place and that any event would be considered by the board on a case by case basis.

Public outcry

Most who attended the meeting once again spoke adamantly against the change. Al "Doc" Cline was again among the first to speak.

"I've lived here all my life and I still do not want to see the presence or change of any form to allow the consumption of alcohol in the town of Canton," he said.

Brenda Ledford said nothing good can come from alcohol.

"Please vote no. If you cannot have an activity without liquor and wine and all that, then we are in sad, sad shape," she said.

Chris Willett, pastor of High Street Baptist Church in Canton, also pleaded with the board to vote against the change.

"There is an ugly side to alcohol that I want you to really consider. It's the side most don't see and that's the side of alcoholism," he said, adding that in the ministry, he has been to the bedsides of people hurt in alcohol related incidents and sat with families whose children were abused by an alcoholic parent.

He pointed out that allowing alcohol at events isn't fair for those who don't want to see it.

"I don't want my children around it or my grandchildren," he said. "That's imposing it on those of us that don't want our families around it.

Jessalyn Rathbone said that as a 20-year-old, she may be an exception to the rule, but she is not in favor of alcohol at all.

"I believe the Bible says to treat your body like a temple and respect God enough to take care of yourself," she said.

Allowing alcohol at festivals would only make Canton like every other town, she said.

"If you're conforming to act like everybody else, why are people going to come here instead of somewhere else?" she asked the board. "I believe you're going to have a lot of conflict with it, so I'm totally against this."

Ryan Putnam asked the board to pray before making their decision.

"The thing is this — alcohol is a sin," he said. "I want you'ns to really pray hard about this because if this happens, can you really sleep at night time with this laying on you'ns' hearts?"

Former Alderman Ed Underwood pointed out that no one seemed to be against smoking, which was an earlier topic of the meeting. While alcohol can cause collateral damage, he said smoking can too.

"All I'm saying is, when you're going to look at one evil, then look at all the evils and don't tell me that smoking's not an evil. It can affect family members too," he said.

Board speaks out

Alderman Zeb Smathers said he understands both sides of the argument and he is a proud Christian.

"No matter what your faith is, there's always going to be disagreements," he said.

Though she's never even tasted alcohol or touched a cigarette, Alderwoman Gail Mull said she also believes it's not her position to stand in judgement of anyone who has or wants to.

"I do not condone drinking, but I cannot tell anyone how to live their lives. You have to make your own choices as I have made mine," she said.

Alderman Ralph Hamlett pointed out that most of those against the idea oppose it based on reasons of faith and morality.

"I respect your views of you of faith who are opposed to the consumption of alcohol in any form…" he said. "I was elected to serve all of the constituency. I cannot appease one group while neglecting another and my decisions are based on what I think is on Canton and its future and the interest of its citizens."

Prior to the vote, Alderwoman Carole Edwards predicted aloud that she would be the "lone ranger" of the board against the issue.

Though one of the aforementioned benefits of the alcohol exception was economic development, a major goal of the board, Edwards said alcohol was never a part of that.

"When we met to talk about strategic plans in the Town of Canton, alcohol on the sidewalks was never discussed," she said.

She pointed out the popular Mater Fest and other festivals in town that never served alcohol.

"We did not allow alcohol at any of those festivals and I think everybody had a wonderful time…I think we can have events in the Town of Canton without alcohol. If you want to drink alcohol, we have places where you can do that if that's what you want to do," she said.

Though she isn't against a person's right to drink alcohol, she believed the ordinance change would not be in the town's best interest.

"For that reason, I will probably be the only one tonight, but I am not in favor of the change of this ordinance," she said, causing the audience to erupt in applause.

As she predicted, the amendment to the ordinance did pass, with Edwards being the lone board member opposed.

The mayor said if he were allowed to vote, he would have voted no.

"I have thought about this and I think we are fine the way we are," he said, adding that he had received about 40 calls from people in opposition to the change.

Like Edwards, he also pointed to the town's successful alcohol-free festivals.

"I've never had anyone come up and say, 'Where are your beer stands?'" he said.

He believes the town should be proud to be set apart from sister cities that do allow alcohol.

"We are branding ourselves as western North Carolina's hometown. I want us to be a little different. A little warmer. A little neighborhood. A little community. We can find a lot of these festivals a lot of other places. I think there's fewer places that are like we are," Ray said.

A second public hearing?

The board already held a public hearing on both the possibilities of changing the tobacco ordinance and making the amendment to the alcohol ordinance during the last board meeting on July 24.

Several spoke out against the alcohol exception at that time and in the end, the board directed Hendler-Voss to draft an ordinance on both changes for the board's vote at the Aug. 14 meeting. However, the issues each appeared on the meeting agenda in the form of a second public hearing.

The mayor pointed out that a public hearing wasn't even required by law on either issue — only zoning and land issues are required to be brought before the public.

Hendler-Voss said he recommended the first hearing because of the sensitivity of the issue. After the first public hearing to get input for the drafted ordinance, the second was intended for the public to respond to the drafted ordinance itself.

Most who attended the second public hearing were not happy with the outcome and left in the middle of the meeting following the vote.

"They didn't listen to us. They already had their minds made up. We might as well have not even been in there," said James Ledford.

Anthony Mintz, who spoke against it, was also disappointed in the decision.

"The board is supposed to represent all of the town's citizens," he said.

He worries that the ordinance exception will not only cause trouble in town and give law enforcement more work, but that festivals allowing alcohol could take away from local restaurants that serve it.

Cline was also upset with the vote after speaking out against it at both public hearings.

"It's the worst thing they ever did," he said.

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