Public sounds off on proposed alcohol, tobacco policies

By DeeAnna Haney | Jul 28, 2014

The Canton Board of Aldermen wants some more time to mull over a possible ordinance change to allow for alcohol on town streets and sidewalks following a public hearing Thursday night.

The current ordinance prohibits the consumption or possession of alcohol on streets and town owned property. Town Manager Seth Hendler-Voss gave a PowerPoint presentation to explain the proposed ordinance change, which would allow alcohol at board approved special events.

"Municipalities all over the country are finding great success in planning and hosting special events in their jurisdictions that appeal to a new demographic that bring a lot of attention and positive economic impact to their communities," he said.

He pointed to the immense popularity of the craft brewery industry in western North Carolina.

"It was paper back in the early 1900s and today it's beer. It's something that's very popular and generates a lot of money and jobs for the economy. You see that in essentially every county adjacent to us," he said.

The ordinance change could give downtown businesses a chance to host special events serving alcohol and would possibly attract large scale festivals that often sell alcohol.

The proposed alcohol policy has nothing to do with the fall sports tailgate kickoff party that will take place at Sid's On Main Aug. 16, Hendler-Voss stressed.

While alcohol will be served inside the restaurant, it will not be served by the organizers of the event and there won't be alcohol in the streets or town sidewalks. The event itself will be alcohol free.

Hendler-Voss said the board could consider modeling the town's alcohol policy after those in Waynesville and Maggie Valley.

"It's an economic development tool. It's one tool in our tool box to try to draw folks downtown to a vibrant scene and we can generate some revenue off the process," Hendler-Voss said.

Not just anyone would be allowed to serve alcohol on the streets if this ordinance is drafted and passed. There would be state and local permitting processes

Town staff would also put in place a special event policy specifically spelling out what is allowed and what is not when it comes to events with alcohol.

Finally, the board of aldermen and staff would consider each event on a case by case basis and have the authority to approve or deny every proposed event.

"Everyone that applies for a permit will not be automatically granted a permit," Hendler-Voss said.

Public safety would be the primary concern when it comes to these type of events.

"There are a lot of controls that can be used to make sure that this sort of thing does not get out of hand, does not tarnish our town's image and does not bring negative attention to our town," he said.

There would also be a number of public safety controls in place for such events including police approval and presence at the event, Alcohol Law Enforcement presence, training for beer sales, sequester requirements, wristbands for people 21 and older, alcohol free zones and required liquor liability coverage.

"This thing can be custom designed to be as safe and responsible as you want it to be," Hendler-Voss said to the board. "It can be the most restrictive alcohol policy in the state of North Carolina if you want it to be, but the staff needs the board and public's input as to what this is going to look like."

Many from the audience spoke out against the proposed ordinance change.

Fannie Dorlan, who owns a popular dance parlor on Main Street, questioned the need for the change.

"How long has liquor by the drink been passed and how many businesses and how many restaurants have we brought in?" she asked.

She worries about Canton's image if alcohol is allowed at special events.

"We have businesses that depend on the area and also, I want you as people to think, do we really want Canton to look and to be like Asheville? Look at what Bele Cher has done. They've done a lot of damage," she said.

Al Cline, known as "Doc Cline," to many in town, is staunchly against the idea.

"At this time I am for not allowing alcoholic beverages on Main Street or sidewalks. I want the ordinance to stay as it is," he saw, drawing a round of applause from the audience.

Another audience member, Audrey Worley, agreed.

"I am 100 percent against this. No if, ands or buts and it's going to cause more problems. We've got enough as it is. Our policemen are busy enough," she said.

Alderman Zeb Smathers said he recognizes this is a controversial issue, which is why the board wanted to hear the public's concerns.

Changing the ordinance, he said, could open the doors to festivals and more opportunities in town, which is something that aligns with the board's strategic goal for economic development.

He pointed out that the board and staff will always have the final say in what type of events are allowed in town.

" All this, in my opinion, it gives us the opportunity to make that call when presented. Currently nothing is in front of us," he said.

It gives Canton a chance to be a destination for events that may otherwise go to different towns.

"If someone wants to bring an event to Waynesville, why not bring it to Canton? It puts us on par with our sister cities, but we do have to remain vigilant," he said, adding that if the police chief doesn't think an event is enforceable, he would vote against it.

Alderman Ralph Hamlett said he appreciated the concerns about safety and the perception of the town if it allowed alcohol at public events.

"My position on this policy is not to promote public intoxication, allow for underage drinking or harm the reputation of our town in any way. I'm curious to see questions of how safety would be addressed," he said. "About the perception issue, that will require some thought, some conversations among us and eventually a choice."

Alderman Carole Edwards said she wants to give this issue some more thought.

"My first thought as far as this change in policy is that I am not for it," she said.

But she recalled there was public outcry when the ABC Store opened in town several years ago.

"I don't see that the ABC Store has ruined our town or made us any worse off in any way. It ink it's probably brought revenue to our town that we didn't have before," she said.

Like her fellow board members, Edwards wants safety issues addressed and make sure the town remains family friendly.

"At this point in time I am not for it. Something may change my mind in the future, but right now that's where I stand," she said.

After hearing from the public, the board decided to think about the possible ordinance change and make a decision at the next regular board meeting Thursday, Aug. 14.

Tobacco Policy

Following a second public hearing, the board gave Hendler-Voss the green light to draft a new ordinance pertaining to public and employee tobacco use in town.

The current ordinance is outdated, only specifically prohibiting smoking inside theaters or any public gathers held in an eclipsed structure. The goal is to update the ordinance to address public and employee tobacco use.

North Carolina allows local governments to adopt smoking restrictions and in 2009, the state amended a statute to allow municipalities to adopt ordinances that are even more restrictive than state tobacco laws.

Though electronic cigarettes are popular, state legislation has not made any rules against them. Hanover and Transylvania counties have already made changes to their policies to include e-cigarettes, but most municipalities have not.

"We are working with our attorney to figure out exactly whether e-cigarettes have a place in our policy or not," Hendler-Voss said.

Citizens would still be allowed to smoke, but there would be some restrictions.

At a minimum, Hendler-Voss recommended the town amend the public smoking policy to prohibit smoking in town buildings and within 50 feet of entryways, allow smoking in only designated areas on town building grounds, prohibit smoking in town vehicles and prohibit smoking within a specified distance from recreation amenities.

There would be enforcement challenges, a slow transition for the public to get used to the policy and there could be an extra cost for signage and possibly extra police enforcement.

The same restrictions would apply to town employees. Employees would not be allowed to smoke in town vehicles but may use smokeless tobacco in the vehicles and while at work, except when in Town Hall and public meetings.

Like the proposed alcohol policy, Hendler-Voss said the tobacco policy can be as restrictive or moderate as the board would like.

From the audience, Worley also spoke up about the tobacco policy. As a smoker, she said she takes care to avoid smoking around non-smokers. But, she hopes any public tobacco policy won't be too restrictive.

"Our rights are being taken away from us every day. I know smoking is a small thing for a lot of you but I've got rights as much as everybody in this room and if want to smoke I'm going to smoke and it should not be so restrictive that you can't enjoy the things that everybody else does," she said.

Canton resident Phil Smathers questioned how such a policy will be enforced.

"It's going to be a real difficult challenge to put a backbone in any ordinance pertaining to that," he said.

Richard Hodge, head of the water and sewer department, urged the board to consider the town crew members who use tobacco.

"There's a lot of times when these employees are out here 12, 14, sometimes 16 hours a day from 5 in the evening to 2 in the morning pushing snow and in stressful situations," he said.

During such stressful times, some employees use tobacco to cope.

"Think about the effect that's going to have on your employees who are doing these tasks in the middle of the night while most people are sleeping," he said of the proposed employee tobacco policy.

"Sometimes in the middle of the night and these guys are pushing snow, nicotine is one of the things to keep them awake and keep them going."

Hendler-Voss said employees would still be permitted to use smokeless tobacco and smoke on the streets and sidewalks while working. They would only be prohibited from smoking in vehicles.

Alderman Edwards said as an ex smoker who quit 18 years ago, she can understand the point of view of both smokers and non smokers. She wants to see a policy that is not too restrictive to smokers, especially employees, but one that also promotes public health.

"I don't want to have to smell it when I go to public places so if we can make it fair for us and fair for the smokers then I'll be keen on it," she said of the proposed policy.

Alderman Hamlett agreed, saying he would like to see a drafted policy that respects both sides and preserves the dignity of smokers. Both aldermen Mull and Smathers agreed that a middle ground should be reached to make everyone happy.

"I may disagree with smoking but I will defend your personal right to make that choice," Smathers said.

He's in favor of both the public and employee policies as long as they don't make smokers feel like outcasts, he said.

As staff moves forward to draft the new smoking policy, it will address the specifics of the policies and how enforcement will be handled.