When it came time to make changes to its alcohol licenses, the city’s Planning and Development department looked to Savannah and came away with a few ideas they hope commissioners will agree with.
The ordinance changes were revealed in a series of three public meetings last week.
Aside from cleaning up the language of the ordinances to reflect the shift from License and Inspection to Planning and Development, the ordinance changes would raise alcohol fees by 10 percent, create a new kind of hybrid restaurant designation and allow bars to be open on a Sunday that falls on or near St. Patrick’s Day.
Not surprisingly, the St. Patrick’s Day move was a direct result of changes made in Savannah, where legislators petitioned the governor to change the state law forbidding bars to be open on Sunday, even when the Sunday happened to be St. Patrick’s Day.
“Because of the economic impact of the holiday, they thought they should be able to sell,” said Rob Sherman, deputy director of the development division. “The governor signed it and Savannah had already adopted the ordinance providing the governor signed it. It took everyone by surprise.”
The ordinance change here in Augusta would allow bars to be open on Sunday if St. Patrick’s Day Sunday lands on either the March 16, 17 or 18.
Another Savannah-inspired change is the creation of the hybrid restaurant designation, which would allow a restaurant to change its status, transitioning from an all-ages restaurant into a 21-and-over club after 9 p.m.
That separation of ages is important, Sherman said, because it’s that mix that contributes to a lot of extra monitoring and law enforcement visits.
According to Sherman, the designation has been used successfully in Savannah.
Because the issues facing clubs tend to increase as the night wears on, Sherman said one of the more significant changes unifies the closing times for all establishments that sell alcohol.
“We’re trying to get control of the after-hours market,” said Larry Harris, a manager in Richmond County’s licensing division.
According to Harris, restaurant owners occasionally approach them wanting to stay open after club hours. The new ordinance would set a closing time for restaurants that sell alcohol as well as those that are granted dance hall licenses, which would now be considered a hybrid privilege license, meaning business owners would have to go before the commission to get approval as well as for a renewal of their license.
The proposed 10 percent fee increase for alcohol licenses is the first since 2011, when commissioners voted to break down the fee by occupancy.
In addition, the proposed ordinance would now assign a penalty for those businesses that don’t pay their fees.
“We have some that over the years just drag around getting their fee paid, letting it drag into the next year,” Sherman says. “So we’re saying it has to be done by the last business day of the year and, if not, there’s going to be a penalty of 20 percent of the license fee not less than $300. If they don’t come in and get it renewed by the end of January, then it’s going to be considered an abandoned business and they have to go through the whole process of reapplying.”
Anticipating public interest, the Planning and Development department delayed putting the changes on the committee agenda until the second week in August so they could make adjustments gauged on public input. However, since attendance was minimal, Sherman admits the process could be delayed as business owners gradually become aware of the changes and start contacting officials and commissioners now that the comment period is over.
“These changes are pretty significant in that they are going to affect some of our alcohol businesses,” Harris said, expressing some disappointment in the lack of public interest.
The full list of the proposed changes can be found at augustaga.gov.