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Sylva approves plan for open carry alcohol

Bridge Park in downtown Sylva is within the boundary of the newly approved social district. Hannah McLeod photo Bridge Park in downtown Sylva is within the boundary of the newly approved social district. Hannah McLeod photo

Despite a strong public showing against the proposed social district at Sylva’s town meeting on Thursday, commissioners voted 3-2 to approve the measure.

“North Carolina Retail Merchants Association was instrumental in the passage of this legislation to drive foot traffic to downtown businesses and level the playing field for brick-and-mortar businesses without ABC permits since we’ve had the COVID pandemic,” said Main Street Sylva Economic Development Director Bernadette Peters at Thursday’s meeting. 

A social district is an outdoor area in which a person may carry and consume alcohol sold by an ABC permitted establishment. Within an area spanning from Nantahala Brewing to Innovation Brewing and including Main Street, Mill Street and Bridge Park, people may move freely with a drink in hand. 

The district will be clearly marked with signs and alcohol must be served in cups that are labeled with the origin of sale and the language, “drink responsibly — be 21.” The draft proposal  is available on the town website. 

“A lot of research was done on the ordinance, which includes meetings with our local law enforcement, our local ALE agents, town attorney and meetings with others towns outside the state that have had the social district for a longer duration of time,” said Peters. “If the ordinance passes, merchant meetings will follow to brainstorm on how the district is implemented and whether or not each business wants to participate.”

Public dissent 

Eleven people took the opportunity to speak during the public hearing in opposition to the proposed social district. The main concerns of these residents were safety, a lack of infrastructure — specifically bathrooms — liability for establishments that sell alcohol, as well as those that don’t, and the fear that this social district would incite brazen partying, drunkenness and defecation in the streets.  

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“If you’re going to create this social district, you might as well close downtown to traffic. One, it’s a safety issue, two no one will want to go down there and spend their money on a place that’s a hazard,” said Benji Jones. “God forbid anybody gets hurt.”

Local attorney Raymond Large owns property and runs a law office on Main Street in downtown Sylva, both of which he says will be affected by the social district. 

“I do not believe the social district, as proposed, would be beneficial to the owners of businesses that serve adult beverages within the social district,” said Large. “There is no contemplation in the legislation for reducing liability or indemnifying a business or permittee that participates in the sale from the actions of a member or customer after they purchase the adult beverage and leave the premisis maintained by the permittee. I would not advise any business seeking my legal counsel to participate in such a practice that opens them to potential criminal and civil liability.”

Large expressed concern over the inability of establishments to control where cups marked with the origin of sale end up. He questioned whether an establishment could be made liable if that cup is found in the hands of someone underage or at the scene of a drunk driving incident. 

Jacque Laura spoke as a representative of the Cut Cocktail Lounge, Snake Song retail shop and Guadalupe Cafe. 

“As someone who has been protecting you from drinking spilling out onto the streets, as per my ABC license, for almost seven years now, I am very concerned,” said Laura. “My liability stops at the end of my business, and I have to prove that when I get my license.”

Laura mentioned the lack of public restrooms as well as public transportation as hindrances to the function of the social district. The owner of Lulu’s restaurant in downtown Sylva echoed concerns about restrooms, stating that during special events his establishment effectively turns into a public restroom. The town has budgeted $250,000 in the upcoming year for public restrooms downtown but have yet to officially decide on a location. 

Cory Bryson spoke as a representative of a few breweries in downtown Sylva. He was not as concerned with liability or safety but said he didn’t see how this would be a big benefit to downtown businesses. 

“This is not turning downtown Sylva into Bourbon Street on Mardis Gras, this is about giving people the option to walk around, not be locked down to one location,” said Bryson. 

Some businesses that do not sell alcohol expressed concern over their ability to regulate who can and cannot enter their premises if they choose not to participate in the social district. Any establishments not participating would be responsible for ensuring people don’t enter their premises with alcohol in hand. 

Sylva resident Tod Bryson took issue with the fact that the social district would be in place on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. 

“Have a little bit of respect for the Christian people of this county,” said Bryson. “God have mercy on each one of y’all. It’s ridiculous.”

One resident likened the decision about the social district to that of the chicken debacle also up for public hearing Thursday evening. 

“I would like to recommend that if you’re going to put restrictions on chickens, we need to put restrictions on the breweries,” said Roger Steven. “Everybody’s got the right to drink beer if they want to, we’ve got it in the Town of Sylva , we’ve got restaurants that serve it where they can go in and drink it, but I think it ought to be restricted there.”

Board input 

Commissioner Mary Gelbaugh saw many issues with the proposed social district including safety, enforcement, liability and waste. 

“There is a time and a place for everything under God, and this is not the time and this is not the place to bring an ordinance like this to the community of Sylva,” she said. 

Commissioners David Nestler, Greg McPherson and Ben Guiney expressed a more positive view of Sylva residents and tourists alike. Nestler said the town heard similar arguments regarding safety and excessive drinking when making the decision to allow alcohol consumption on town property, but that by and large, those issues have not played out. He also noted that because the social district ends at 9 p.m., it is not likely to encourage late night bar hopping. 

Though Commissioner Guiney echoed Nestler’s confident outlook, he said he didn’t see the big gain for downtown businesses. 

“I think there needs to be more discussion,” said Guiney. “As written today, I don’t think I really support it.”

After hearing comments from the public, McPherson initiated an amendment to the ordinance, changing the hours on Sunday from 1 to 9 p.m. instead of 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. as was originally proposed. Social district hours are 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. 

“I have enough trust in the citizens of Sylva that they will respect this,” said Commisisoner Natalie Newman. “And the social district will be a privilege. If people don’t respect it, it can be easily taken away.”

Next steps 

Following discussion from the board, Nestler made a motion to approve the social district with amended Sunday hours. The motion passed with Nestler, Mcpherson and Newman voting yes, while Gelbaugh and Guiney were opposed. 

According to Peters, the town must create a specific plan, file it with the state and implement the plan according to the bill’s specific requirements. That includes district boundary signage, container and branding strategy, and an option for merchants to opt in or out.  

“We plan on hosting a merchant permittee brainstorming session, and a non-permittee merchant brainstorming session, plus consider all of the public input from our Feb. 10 Town Board Meeting to create the details of the plan,” said Peters. “We will periodically evaluate the social district’s usage and any reported safety concerns periodically and are open to changing the district plans accordingly.” 

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