A political battle that’s been brewing in Clermont for years is coming to a head as prominent business owners are lobbying state leaders to help them with the town council’s unwillingness to allow a referendum that would let voters decide whether beer and wine can be sold within city limits.
Business owners wanted to have the issue placed on the ballot of the Nov. 7 municipal elections, but with election day a month away, it’s too late for that to happen.
Chris Nonnemaker — owner of Papa’s Pizza To Go, 6483 Cleveland Highway, and Mark Kirves, whose wife Valerie operates nearby Iron Accents — are so fed up with what they perceive as an affront to their rights as property owners that they want to de-annex their businesses from Clermont.
Kirves and Nonnemaker said they have petitioned state Rep. Lee Hawkins and Sen. Butch Miller, both Republicans from Gainesville, to file legislation that would allow them to exit Clermont and be under Hall County jurisdiction, which allows alcohol sales.
The Times was unable to reach the state lawmakers Wednesday night.
At a Clermont Town Council meeting Tuesday night, Mayor Jim Nix and council members in attendance — Kristi Crumpton, Doug Myers and Margaret Merritt — directed their city clerk to correspond with Rep. Hawkins.
The communication, a copy of which was provided to The Times by the city, informs Hawkins of the results of “an informal poll” related to the sale of beer and wine, which was conducted during a town hall meeting July 8, 2014. According to the results of the poll, of the 48 residents who attended the meeting, 32 “voted no to beer and wine,” and 16 voted in favor.
In addition, of the 20 non-residents who attended the meeting, 16 voted no to the sale of beer and wine, and four voted in favor.
Nix told The Times after Tuesday’s meeting that the letter was crafted in response to a lobbying effort by some business owners to Rep. Hawkins.
Robin Collinson, owner of the historic hotel now known as The Clermont Venue, joined Nonnemaker and Kirves in their support for lifting the prohibition in town.
“They need to get with the times,” Collinson said.
Kirves said it has become very much a property rights issue for him.
“Buyers have shown interest to buy Iron Accents and turn it into a restaurant,” Kirves said. “When they learn the property is in city limits they’re no longer interested because they know you can’t sell beer and wine.”
Kirves said he’s invested more than $1 million in his property.
Nonnemaker said the ban on beer and wine is keeping him from opening a family-friendly sports grill at his location. He said the town’s opposition to such sales is killing business.
“The El Rey Mexican Restaurant closed last month because they couldn’t compete without selling beer, wine and margaritas,” he said.
Nonnemaker said the nearby Shell gas station in city limits also closed because its competitors on Cleveland Highway outside of city limits sell beer and wine.
“I own the property where the restaurant is and I want to turn that into a sports grill,” he said. “If I was across the street, I could do it. If I was 800 feet north of me, I could do it. If I were a mile south of me, I could do it. But because we’re in Clermont, we can’t. I want to de-annex because my property rights are not the same as the guy across the street.”