Lighter local alcohol laws cleared their first vote of the Gainesville City Council on Tuesday.
Council members approved in first reading a package of reforms to the city’s alcohol regulations that include the creation of a downtown dining district, which allows customers to consume alcohol in public downtown.
The district would allow pedestrians to drink any type of alcohol from clear, plastic cups no larger than 16 ounces in the downtown area. The precise boundaries of the district will be presented to the council at its next meeting.
Private property owners would retain the right to block people from drinking alcohol on their property, according to the ordinance.
City Manager Bryan Lackey said the policy change was based on public input and would make it easier for law enforcement to police the square during public events, when there has at times been confusion about who is allowed to drink in public.
The reforms also would allow breweries to sell beer directly to customers beginning Sept. 1. The change tracks with changes made by Georgia lawmakers earlier this year.
Up to now, breweries have been limited to selling tours and offering “samples” of their beer. If the local changes are approved in second reading, Left Nut Brewing Co. and future breweries would be able to sell beer by the pint, six-pack and case.
And it was a good night for growler bars: council members struck a provision in the reforms that would have restricted the amount of wine the businesses are allowed to sell as samples.
Currently, growler bars may sell up to 24 ounces of either beer or wine per person. The city had proposed to change the regulations to increase beer sales to 32 ounces per person while cutting wine back to 16 ounces — a change opposed by Downtown Drafts owners Nick and Aimee Hoecker.
“We do understand the … concern,” Hoecker told the council on Tuesday. “I realize that a certain number of ounces may sound like too much wine. As a business, Downtown Drafts has brought a lot of vibrance and activity to the Gainesville square without a single problem in its three years. It’s more about the principle than the number of ounces because we always do serve responsibly.”
The council amended the regulations to stick with the current regulations. The amendment was offered by Councilman Sam Couvillon and seconded by Councilman Zack Thompson.
The reforms cleared the council in a 4-1 vote, with George Wangemann the lone dissenter.
“We’re moving towards, step by step, towards open bars, and I think that would be a very bad move for Gainesville,” Wangemann said before the vote. “Every time we liberalize the alcoholic beverage ordinance, that’s kind of what we’re doing. We do not need open bars in Gainesville.”
He recounted losing a personal friend in a head-on vehicle collision and the toll it took on him and others.
“Alcohol is a drug,” Wangemann concluded. “Alcohol is something that needs to be regulated for the safety of the people.”
Along with Couvillon and Thompson, council members Barbara Brooks and Ruth Bruner voted to approve the reforms in first reading. Bruner called into the meeting.
Thompson owns Tap It, a growler bar in the same building as his Pro Touch Landscapes shop on Thompson Bridge Road. He told The Times after the meeting that he didn’t think he had a conflict of interest in voting on the regulations because the package of reforms as amended didn’t change the local regulations for growler bars.
The new regulations will take effect immediately if the council approves them in second reading on Aug. 15.