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Macon-Bibb officials are denying some alcohol licenses. Are they on shaky legal ground?

What Macon-Bibb County looks at when approving an alcohol license

Here is what Macon-Bibb County looks at when they are debating whether to approve or deny an alcohol license.
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Here is what Macon-Bibb County looks at when they are debating whether to approve or deny an alcohol license.

Before draft beer can flow through the taps of a local sports bar, or bottles of wine can be sold at the grocery store, businesses have to first go through the Macon-Bibb County Commission.

But recently, commissioners have denied permits for reasons some challenge as not being legally sound.

One of the latest rejections came after a housing official asked commissioners to stop allowing alcohol to be sold at a convenience store near a public housing complex, partly because it was a “bad influence” on children.

In another case, some commissioners questioned allowing beer and wine to be sold at a movie theater, again citing the presence of children.

Commissioners were at odds over an alcohol license for the AmStar 16 movie theater in north Macon, and in April they initially voted to deny it. Some commissioners argued it was unfair to single out a business when there are other kid-friendly establishments that sell alcohol.

After a denial, business owners have two options: appeal the decision in hopes that commissioners change their minds, or file a lawsuit. The theater appealed and a hearing was held Wednesday.

Equal protection

A Bibb County Sheriff’s Office corporal who worked security at the theater testified how disorderly conduct by teenagers in the parking lot and theater was the most common problem he faced.

But an attorney for AmStar 16, Mindy Thompson, referenced a letter by the sheriff’s office that said there have not been reoccurring problems at the theater that should prevent it from getting the license.

She argued the county is breaking law by not allowing the license. The presence of children is not a legally sound argument, she said, especially when businesses that cater to the under-21 crowd like Chuck E. Cheese’s and Pin Strikes bowling alley have alcoholic beverage licenses.

“The denial of AmStar’s application would be an equal protection violation,” Thompson said. The U.S. Constitution’s 14th amendment guarantees equal protection under the law.

Thompson also disputed the notion that there could a rash of intoxicated customers disturbing others and said staff would be trained before serving beer and wine.

“The likelihood of patrons becoming intoxicated from this two-drink maximum is very slim,” Thompson said. “Additionally, this risk appears at any business that allows alcohol sales.”

Assistant County Attorney Michael McNeill said that although AmStar met certain legal requirements for the license, the county code allows commissioners the ability to take other factors into account.

An attempt to prevent any movie theaters from selling alcohol failed to pass in May.

“We aren’t really getting tougher, if you will,” Commissioner Valerie Wynn said earlier this month about the licensing process. “The AmStar thing is something where we said, ‘Hey, let’s not have alcohol in our one and only movie theater.’ They are doing what they’re allowed to do which is ask for a hearing. We’ll lose that because we don’t have a legal basis to go forward with it.”

After the hearing, a commissioner who had initially opposed the license said the Commission needs to re-examine how it handles applications.

“I think AmStar has shown they have the law on their side,” Commissioner Joe Allen said. “I’ve learned something myself, that with the sheriff giving his approval, with the engineer giving his approval, we cannot deny anyone a license based on certain issues that our heart feels. We’ve got to go by what the law says.”

A decision on AmStar’s license could come after the special master over the hearing presents his report to the county.

‘Bad influence’

Another recommendation for a denial arose in June is for Friends Food Mart, known as Rocky’s Express Foods, after a request was made by Macon-Bibb County Housing Authority CEO Mike Austin to deny a license for the new owner.

The 3350 Houston Ave. convenience store, whose previous owner was licensed to sell alcohol, is across the street from the Pendleton Homes public housing complex.

Austin said he opposed the new license because there are about 250 children who live near the store that’s also close to an elementary school.

There have been times when sheriff’s deputies were called to the store only to have the perpetrator leave and hide in Pendleton Homes, he said.

“We think this is a bad influence upon children who are very impressionable,” Austin said at the June 4 meeting.

A letter sent to the store’s manager by the County Attorney’s Office cited Austin’s statements — that the store poses a threat to Pendleton residents — as the reason the County Commission recommends denying the license.

The denial came despite the new owner and manager passing background checks and the sheriff’s office signing off on the license.

The application process does take into account the proximity of the nearest schools, public libraries, alcoholic treatment centers and Macon-Bibb County Housing Authority property. But although Rocky’s is located close to Pendleton, that’s not enough reason to reject the new owner’s license, McNeill told commissioners at the June 4 meeting.

“Even though our code and state law says distance alone is not grounds to deny, there may be other grounds,” he said. “For example, if the premise is unsuitable for the conduct of an alcohol beverage business because of its location, highway traffic problems and the difficulty or absence thereof of policing by law enforcement, that’s something you can point to.”

A manager for Rocky’s told The Telegraph that the business was notified of the denial and that the owner is working with an attorney to decide how to handle the matter.

Following the process

Even with the latest string of rejections, Macon-Bibb County grants the vast majority of licenses to both new businesses and new owners.

The requirements depend on the type of business, which types of alcohol are sold, and whether the beverages are consumed on-site or sold to go.

There were 76 alcoholic beverage license applications that came before the County Commission between June 2018 and May 2019.

Since 2017, in addition to Rocky’s Express Foods, there have been other denials:

  • Commissioners declined in 2017 to renew an alcohol license for M&M Grocer on Montpelier Avenue because of a large number of calls that the sheriff’s office responded to at the store. A lawsuit was filed against the county over the denial with the attorney arguing the owner’s due process was violated and that Macon-Bibb was unable to prove the owner did not meet state requirements to have a license. A request for a new license in 2019 was withdrawn by new owner Madan Popli.

  • Pio Nono Gas & Food Mart, Inc.’s application was rejected in June. The 1803 Pio Nono Ave. store is also owned by Popli, who has pending racketeering charges in Houston County. The Bibb County Sheriff’s Office “cautiously recommended” granting the license because Popli has not been indicted or convicted for allegedly paying cash winnings from commercial gambling machines.

When commissioners decide against approving an alcohol permit, the Macon-Bibb County Attorney’s Office provides a written notice outlining why it is being opposed. The applicant then has 10 days to request a hearing that is held before a special master.

The special master issues a report to the county before commissioners have the final say.

“The process hasn’t changed, it’s just sometimes there are things we have to look closely at,” Commissioner Bert Bivins said. “If you haven’t heard of any problems or situations and the distance and reports from the sheriff are fine... then it’s usually pretty routine.”

Bivins and Wynn said they are aware of the large number of places selling liquor and other types of alcohol in Macon-Bibb.

“We all have a concern that there’s too much alcohol out there and say, ‘Why have more?’ ” Wynn said. “But if it’s a convenience store, I figure that’s how they make their money.”

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