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New law permits adult beverage ‘social districts’ we could see here

More convenient takeout options, sidewalk tables and even expanding dining space into parking lots became part of life in the pandemic economy.

Now, a new state law has added “social districts” to the dining and beverage landscape — outside areas where folks may consume alcohol on sidewalks in designated areas.
Sponsored by Rep. Tim Moffitt, who represents Henderson County, the social district concept was part of a major ABC reform package adopted by the Legislature this session and signed by Gov. Roy Cooper on Sept. 10.
Moffitt, who was elected to the state House last November, took up many of the ABC reform measures that had been championed by Rep. Chuck McGrady, whom Moffitt replaced. Moffitt himself had worked on liquor law reform during his two terms representing Buncombe County.
Traditionally in North Carolina, laws governing on-premise consumption of alcohol meant that the beverage could only be consumed “within the walls of a restaurant,” or at patio or sidewalk tables. During emergency orders under the coronavirus pandemic last year, Gov. Roy Cooper allowed restaurants to extend their serving areas onto sidewalks and even parking lots, in order to accommodate better spacing.
“I really thought that was an effective way to really allow restaurants and bars to provide a completely different experience for their customers,” Moffitt said. The ABC reform makes those changes permanent and allows social districts that cities or counties would designate and oversee based on plans approved by the state ABC Commission.
Under the law, it would be possible to create 2-3 blocks as a social district that “really allow folks to have their adult beverage of choice walking along the sidewalks, shopping with our retailers and enjoying the finer aspects of our restaurants,” Moffitt said. “So if you have a cup of beer from a restaurant you can leave with that in the social district as it’s defined by local officials. … It has to be clearly marked so law enforcement would have the opportunity to know where the boundaries are.”
The law require specific rules, including:
• Clear signage spelling out the boundaries of the social district, the days and hours when alcoholic beverages may be consumed and phone numbers of local law enforcement and the state Alcohol Law Enforcement agency.
• A management and maintenance plan adopted by the local jurisdiction that ensures the district is “maintained in a manner that protects the health and safety of the general public.”
• A detailed map, submitted to the ABC Commission, showing the boundaries of the social district and its hours.
Asked whether the districts might suit Hendersonville, Moffitt said, “That’s up to the City Council.”
“Part of the design of the bill was to not only give more individual liberty to folks back home but also to give some responsibility to our local elected officials in regards to crafting social districts,” he said. “In Hendersonville, downtown has grown so much and there are lots of restaurants that seem to be congregated roughly in the same area.”
‘It can be done safely’
In interviews, a majority of the City Council said they are open to exploring the idea of social districts on Main Street and in the Historic Seventh Avenue District, which be getting a streetscape make over this fall.
“I do, 100 percent” support exploring the idea, council member Jennifer Hensley said. She sees a review of the concept fitting into a broader look at downtown in the context of the Seventh Avenue, new parking deck, Main Street parking meters and zoning amendments aimed at broadening allowable commercial uses downtown.
“We are in this next year going to be really talking about planning for the downtown area in general, including all of Main Street and the entire Seventh Avenue District,” Hensley said. “I’m optimistic about it. My personal opinion is it can be done and it can be done safely and it can provide good revenue stream for the businesses and the community.”
Lyndsey Simpson, who serves as the council liaison on the Downtown Advisory Committee, looks forward to gauging the reaction of downtown restaurateurs, brewery owners and other retailers.

“It’s tricky. I think that there’s plenty of times that would probably serve the downtown well — look at Rhythm & Brews,” she said. “But there’s also a lot of logistics and liability and all sorts of things. It’s one of those that I think we would be interested in exploring but we’d really have to put some parameters in to make sure it’s safe.
“We’ve spoken about it briefly with the downtown advisory board and I think there is interest in it,” she said. “I haven’t heard anyone say, ‘We really want to do this or we don’t want to do this.’ We would have to discuss it as a group, probably take some more polls within the downtown businesses and downtown business owners.” She would also support polling restaurant and bar owners in cities where social districts exist to find out: “How has it gone for you? Did you see a difference in (the number of) people that came into town?”
Jeff Miller, who is retiring from the council in December, said he’d support the council exploring the idea.
“There has been some preliminary discussion but there hasn’t been any organized discussion,” he said. “It’s something we already said we would be interested in talking about just to look at. I know there’s some concern from people that don’t want it to be too free-wheeling. It’s definitely something to look at to see how it would fit if it would fit. I’m a short timer so I don’t know how much we could get done.”
City Manager John Connet said he and the city’s downtown economic development team have been watching Moffitt’s bill and waiting to see if it became law.
“My guess is there will be some discussion about it,” Connet said. “We’d share it with the downtown advisory board and the council. We could absolutely look at that. We’d talk to businesses about if that’s something they want, we could definitely take it to the City Council.”

Two-beer rule is ‘relationship saver’


Moffitt describes his regulatory reform approach as seeking “simple solutions for complex problems.” The comprehensive ABC reform bill, besides creating social districts, puts distilleries on “more even footing” with breweries and wineries in their ability to serve and sell their product on-premises, allows online ordering from ABC stores that are set up to take those orders and fixes the one-beer limit at stadium vendors.
“Most people don’t realize we have close to 90 different distilleries in our state and as an agribusiness they’re the fastest growing,” he said.
The comprehensive ABC reform bill was made up of eight or nine separate bills that Moffitt steered through the House. After the Senate combined them into one bill, both chambers passed the reform measure in strong bipartisan votes.
“A lot of people are talking about the two-beer allowance,” Moffitt said. The bill fixed what was widely regarded as a burdensome and unnecessary state law that barred fans at public university stadiums and arenas from buying more than one beer at a time. The new law makes it two.
“Some people refer to that as the relationship saver,” Moffitt quipped. “It really didn’t make sense. It made for very long lines and very disgruntled patrons. Again, it’s a simple solution to a problem that became complex in regards to long lines and the crowds. My approach has been more on the individual liberty side, believing in personal responsibility but also believing in free enterprise.”