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Newly issued alcohol permits cause backlash against off-casino sales

Newly issued alcohol permits cause backlash against off-casino sales

Five years ago, Cherokee voters gave a decisive response on a referendum question asking whether they’d like to see the historical ban on alcohol sales outside casino property lifted on the Qualla Boundary, with 60 percent voting to keep Cherokee dry.

But in the last five months, alcohol sales have been popping up at various events and establishments on tribal land, a development that has infuriated some tribal members. These new permits were issued as the result of an intersection between tribal and state laws that allows for a handful of circumstances in which alcohol permits can be distributed outside the casino.

Councilmember Lisa Taylor, of Painttown, wants to see those permits disappear. Last week, she introduced a resolution asking for another referendum vote on the alcohol question.

“Numerous people in my community during my campaign approached me about this alcohol issue, and they felt like their voice was being silenced and they weren’t able to weigh in on the issue,” Taylor said in a follow-up interview. “So I decided to bring this resolution forward.”

The resolution, introduced during an Oct. 26 Tribal Council session, declares that “the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is a Sovereign Nation capable of establishing its own laws, rules and regulations,” that “it is recognized that North Carolina’s law does not supersede our Tribe’s jurisdiction,” and that the current state of affairs “excludes” tribal members from voting on “the spread of alcohol within our communities.”

Therefore, it states, a special election referendum should be held to “answer the question of expanding alcohol sales to other business establishments outside of casino property on the Qualla Boundary.”

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Legal intricacies

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has long kept its territory dry, but that situation shifted following the construction of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. Initially, the casino was dry as well, but it quickly became evident that the lack of alcohol was hurting business. A 2009 referendum had 70 percent of voters supporting alcohol sales at the casino — but only at the casino.

However, at that time the tribe didn’t have its own Alcoholic Beverage Commission, instead buying alcohol through the Swain and Jackson County ABC boards, which then reaped profit from the sales. The tribe set about forming its own ABC board, instated in 2011, and Council passed a law to put Cherokee in compliance with state laws regulating alcohol sales. Federal law puts all the authority for regulating these sales in the hands of the states.

But the 2011 law was incomplete on the state’s end, and a 2015 addition passed in Raleigh more clearly spelled out the authority of Cherokee’s ABC board, ensuring that it would have the same permitting authority as the state board.

The law also required that the Cherokee ABC Board adhere to state alcohol standards and adopt any future changes to state ABC law.

Following the 2015 changes, those state laws allow for a specific set of circumstances in which an alcohol permit may be issued without a referendum. Hotels and restaurants that are located within 1.5 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway are eligible, and one-time permits can be granted for festivals and events. Permits can also be granted for breweries, wineries and distilleries, though these establishments would not be allowed to serve any alcohol produced on tribal land without a referendum vote taking place.

While the state law allowing for such permits passed in 2015, the first permit was not granted until May 2017. Former Principal Chief Patrick Lambert had refused to allow any such permits to be issued without a referendum vote first taking place.

“I am aware of the recent changes in the N.C. Law on the mileage marker on the Blue Ridge Parkway,” he wrote in a November 2015 letter to Collette Coggins, who chaired the ABC board at the time. “However, I do not recognize the authority of that law to override the power of a lawful vote of our people on the Referendum question. The referendum question passed by our people explicitly authorized alcohol sales only upon the property of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.”


New permits issued

Following Lambert’s impeachment in May, Richard Sneed became the new principal chief and began issuing the types of permits outlined in the state law. According to ABC Chairman Pepper Taylor, permits have been issued to three restaurants located near the Parkway — Wize Guyz Grille, Sassy Sunflowers Bakery & Café and Little Princess Restaurant. Additionally, a permit was granted for the Cherokee Blue Ridge Run motorcycle rally in September.

Sneed defended this action during the Oct. 26 meeting, telling councilmembers that refusing to issue these types of permits would put the tribe out of compliance with state alcohol laws, in which case the state could decide to yank all alcohol permits — including those given to the casino, which result in $20 million of revenue each year.

“You need to understand Tribal Council, if you pass this resolution you will put us out of compliance with North Carolina ABC law, and at that point they will revoke all permits,” he said.

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