SEBASTIAN — The Sebastian City Council will reconsider a city ordinance that currently prohibits beer and wine sales within 450 feet of churches and schools.
The council decided to put the issue on their agenda for the next meeting on Dec. 15. Councilwoman Andrea Coy asked her fellow council members to consider the possibility of allowing restaurants to offer beer and wine with meals as a way to promote business.
The issue arose with the opening of Las Palmas Cuban Restaurant in The Village Shoppes, which is less than 450 feet from a church.
General Manager Edna Gonzalez addressed the City Council, telling the members that her customers ask on a daily basis for a glass of wine to go with their meal and she has to tell them no, due to the ordinance.
Gonzalez manages another Las Palmas restaurant in Palm Bay, which offers beer and wine. She said that restaurant’s receipts show 10 percent of sales are alcohol, the rest in food.
The Palm Bay location only serves alcohol to those who are not intoxicated and only to those who have ordered food, she said.
Gonzalez said that she feels the “archaic obstacle” is cutting into her potential for business in Downtown Sebastian.
Several people spoke in favor of modifying the ordinance, provided that it applied only to restaurants – not package liquor sales or stand-alone bars.
One speaker said that it can be a “turn-off” to go to a restaurant expecting to have a nice meal and find out you can have a glass of wine.
“I don’t see a downside, only a plus,” the speaker said.
While most spoke in favor, Pastor Ron Thomas raised an objection – not over the moral implications of consuming alcohol but of zoning and compatibility.
He reminded the council that the reason churches and schools are lumped together in the ordinance is because of the various activities that occur at various times during the week – most of which involve children.
“This is a zoning issue,” Thomas said, noting that when the council considered the issue five or six years ago, the council agreed that allowing alcohol sales so close to such facilities was incompatible.
“Did these folks not do their due diligence?” Thomas rhetorically asked of the owners of Las Palmas when they decided to open a restaurant so close to a church and fall subject to the alcohol ordinance.
Beth Mitchell, executive director of the Sebastian River Area Chamber of Commerce, told the City Council that the board has not formed a position yet on the proposed ordinance changes.
However, in her opinion, she said, now is an appropriate time to review the ordinance, given the current economic reality.
Damien Gilliams, owner of several businesses in Sebastian including the No Name Bar, asked the council that if they were to reconsider the ordinance, the council should look at the whole ordinance, not just the distance requirements.
He said that the 20-plus bars in the city might want to stay open one hour later than is currently allowed in the ordinance, providing the potential to serve more customers who – in his estimation – travel to Brevard County to be served after 1 a.m.
Councilwoman Coy objected to reviewing the full ordinance, telling the council that the only portion she had any interest in re-examining was the distance requirement. She said that was the only issue she had discussed with local religious leaders.
Councilman Richard Gillmor disagreed, noting that if they were going to review the ordinance, they should look at it in its entirety.
Councilman Don Wright raised the question of whether Sebastian’s current ordinance is even in compliance with state law, which recently changed.
Both Vero Beach and Indian River County adjusted their alcohol ordinances to reflect the changes to state law. Both have removed the distance requirement, though Vero Beach still requires that at least 51 percent of an establishments receipts be in food sales.
City Attorney Robert Ginsburg told the council that he would review the compliance factor prior to the Dec. 15 meeting.
One member of the audience suggested that the council grant a variance for Las Palmas to serve alcohol, considering none of the neighbors have objected.
“We can’t wave our magic wand” and allow one business to offer alcohol? Gillmor asked of Ginsburg.
The city attorney said that the council could not approve such a motion, though another option could exist.
Ginsburg explained that if the council did not want to modify the ordinance citywide, the council might be able to consider creating a zone of exemption perhaps along the US 1 and County Road 512 corridors.
“Maybe we could do something like that,” Ginsburg said, though he added that his preference would be to have a unified rule for the entire city.
Ginsburg told the council that he would draft a proposed ordinance and bring it back to them for the first of two readings at the Dec. 15 meeting. At that time, the council is expected to take more public comment and tweak the ordinance as the members see fit.
The second and final reading could come at the first council meeting in January.