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Anti-social: Social district proposal unlikely to reemerge after Waynesville tables it

Thousands of tourists visit downtown Waynesville each year. File photo Thousands of tourists visit downtown Waynesville each year. File photo

Waynesville’s consideration of a social district in its downtown core took an interesting turn on June 27, when members of the Town Council voted 4-1 to halt discussion of the issue — in effect, killing it. 

“During the discussion, I made a motion to postpone discussion indefinitely,” said Council Member Anthony Sutton. “I do not believe the subject will come back up unless there is a groundswell of support from within the community.” 

Social districts, which allow for the on-street consumption of alcohol under tightly controlled parameters, were enabled by the Republican-dominated General Assembly in late 2021.

Each of Haywood County’s Republican legislators at that time — Sen. Kevin Corbin of Macon County, Rep. Mark Pless of Haywood County and Rep. Mike Clampitt of Swain County — voted for at least one of the two bills that would allow municipalities to decide for themselves if they wanted such a district.

A number of cities across North Carolina took advantage of the opportunity, from Greensboro to Kannapolis to Sylva .

On June 16, representatives from law enforcement in those three cities told The Smoky Mountain News  that they’d encountered no problems related to social districts. Sylva Police Chief Chris Hatton said he didn’t think his department had even received a call related to its social district during its 14-month existence.

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The Downtown Waynesville Commission, charged with administering the downtown municipal service district, presented the recommendation for a social district to the Town Council on June 13, along with the results of a survey conducted with 100 stakeholders including property owners, business owners, workers and downtown residents.

The survey indicated overwhelming support, on the order of 90%, and further recommended that the district be in effect each day from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., rather than only on weekends or for special events.

“We were tasked by the Town Council to research and make a recommendation to them about instituting a Social District in downtown Waynesville. We did that,” said Jay Spiro, chair of the DWC. “After a thorough review and research of the impacts of social districts across the state, multiple public hearings and a survey of downtown property owners, residents and businesses, we made our recommendation.”

After a public comment session filled with exaggerated and even false claims on June 13, an even more protracted public comment session took place before the June 27 vote. Council Members described it variously as angry, hostile and vitriolic, with personal attacks levied on some Council Members.

Only one of the 20 or so members of the public who spoke were in favor of the district, a fact not lost on Sutton.

“There was overwhelming support through the poll from the DWC, but it would have been better if those people would have come to show their support; however, there was not one person from downtown district who showed up,” he said.

Sutton said he doesn’t support the district as proposed but might consider it again with modifications, like if it were only in operation for special events with permission of the Town Council. As the recommendation from the DWC was subject to modification by Town Council, members of Council could have altered the dates, times and locations of the district at will. Alternately, Council could have approved the district as proposed, or rejected it completely.

Like Sutton, Council Member Chuck Dickson also noted that almost no one came to speak in support of the DWC’s recommendation. Dickson expressed similar misgivings over the logistics of the proposed district.

“I think that there were a number of concerns that were raised about possible adverse impacts of a social district — public drunkenness, criminal behavior, underage drinking, lack of restroom facilities, the ability of police to enforce the laws,” he said. “There were no answers presented for these concerns.” 

Dickson also questioned the actual economic benefit of the district to merchants and wonders if the DWC survey actually represents the viewpoint of the majority of the business community.  He said that at this point, he’s not inclined to move forward with the social district, but he did note the hypocrisy inherent in the discourse from those who spoke during public comment — almost all of them registered Republicans.

“There do seem to be some inconsistencies in the arguments. This bill was proposed and passed by the Republicans in Raleigh. The primary push came from the N.C. Retail Merchants Association, not from the alcohol lobby. Even our local reps voted for one or the other bills establishing social districts,” Dickson said. “The idea of liberty is interesting when it seems many people want to be free to do whatever they want to do, but at the same time they want government to tell us what we can and can’t do. The differing views on that are sometimes not very logical.”

The strident opposition to the social district also had an effect on Council Member Jon Feichter, who said he couldn’t remember a more controversial issue since the debate over the apartments proposed for Plott Creek several years ago.

Feichter’s always taken a populist approach to governing, especially on social media.

“One of my core political philosophies is that I have been elected to do the will of the people, if I can determine what that is,” he said. “From the people who spoke at the public hearing, plus the meeting where we called the public hearing (on June 1),, and phone calls and emails, it was clear that the overwhelming sentiment was that this was a resounding ‘no.’”

Two messages in particular affected Feichter the most — one from a recovering alcoholic who strives to avoid environments in which alcohol is served and thus felt they could be excluded from downtown events, and another from Bob Cummings, who spoke respectfully in opposition to the district during the public hearing on behalf of Haywood County Sheriff Bill Wilke.

Wilke noted his opposition to the social district in a letter presented to Town Council on June 13.

The DWC survey didn’t carry much weight with Feichter, either, despite the 90% level of support.

“The first time I heard that figure my thought was, ‘Well what about the rest of Waynesville?’ Because I don’t know how you can differentiate between the people who live and work in downtown and the rest of Waynesville,” he said. “The folks outside the MSD have just as much of a vested interest in what happens downtown as the merchants and property owners. I would even extend that to folks who don’t live in Waynesville.” 

Feichter was the only Council member to vote against tabling the social district proposal, not because he supports it but because he thinks it should have been voted down right then and there, thus settling the issue.

“I do think it was a mistake,” he said of tabling the proposal. “I feel like we should have made a stronger statement, one that was more reflective of the fact that the overwhelming majority did not want a social district downtown. In other words, the will of the people was clear and our actions should have lined up.”

He also expressed worry that some would consider the tabling as a ploy to push the issue off past the November elections. Feichter said that like the rest of the Town Council, he’s running for reelection, but that he wouldn’t ever consider bringing the issue up again unless there’s a “180-degree turn” from current public sentiment.

Along with his family, Feichter owns two buildings within the proposed social district.

Julia Freeman, the lone Republican on Town Council, said she was on the fence about the social district, having received a number of emails in support, but that the outcome of the June 27 meeting was the correct one. A decision may be made in the future, or, the issue may never come up again, Freeman said.

“We are in absolutely no rush to pass this or not pass it,” she said, adding that she’d like to follow the results of this relatively new phenomenon across the state in the 40-some communities that have already established social districts.

“What I need to hear is the fact that there’s been no adverse ramifications or increasing crime, drunkenness in the town and on the streets, homeless people rummaging through trash dumpsters, no increase in the Town of Waynesville’s need for police to patrol the district,” Freeman said.

Mayor Gary Caldwell didn’t need much convincing from the people who spoke at the meeting; during the June 13 call for public hearing, Caldwell said his Christian faith would prevent him from supporting the social district altogether, and his opinion hasn’t changed.

“I thought there would be more people to come and support it,” he said.

He did, however, express some concern over the tone of the comments, as well as the boisterous applause that followed some speakers. During public comment, speakers aren’t supposed to level personal attacks, ask questions or otherwise applaud or jeer speakers.

Caldwell said that after he’d gaveled some speakers from the podium, the tone changed somewhat.

“I hammed on ‘em a couple times about the clapping,” he said. “Please, just give us some respect.”

Spiro said he wasn’t surprised by the outcome of the June 27 meeting, given the context of the public hearing, and that the DWC would now continue with its responsibilities administering the MSD.

“The Waynesville Town Council has made their decision for now,” he said. “Going forward the DWC will continue to implement our much broader mission, which includes our efforts to promote, enhance and beautify the downtown, create and organize the many enjoyable events downtown Waynesville is known for, recruit business and encourage and assist downtown property owners, residents and businesses by helping to make downtown Waynesville a great place to live, work, shop, eat and visit.”

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