Reciting Johnston County’s alcohol laws might make for a good field sobriety test, but it probably couldn’t distinguish the drunk from the sober. From one town to the next and everywhere in between, the ease of buying a beer depends on where one lives.
This year, however, both Johnston County and Clayton have alcohol referendums on the ballot, each asking the same question of citizens: Should restrictions on beer and wine sales be lifted?
It’s been 14 years since Johnston last weighed in on alcohol, meaning it’s been 14 years since voters last voted down countywide beer sales. The last countywide change to Johnston’s alcohol laws came in 1997, when citizens voted in mixed drinks but rejected off-premise beer sales. They did so again in 2002.
Currently in unincorporated Johnston County, a business must have 35 seats and operate as a restaurant in order to sell beer and wine to go. That’s been the law here since since 1949.
In 1997, Clayton voters passed a referendum that restricted beer sales to restaurants serving mixed drinks, meaning wine bars can’t also serve glasses of beer.
Both Johnston County and Clayton’s referendums came from perceived needs in the business community. Country store owners argued it wasn’t fair for the county to force customers to bypass their store and drive into town to buy beer and wine. A Clayton wine bar said it was losing sales to people who come in with friends who might not like wine.
Ultimately, elected officials agreed with the businesses, Johnston County Commissioner Tony Braswell said.
“We started this process because a couple townships had already voted on it and this would sort of level the playing field,” Braswell said. “It came up this year from some businesses seeking relief. Our intention is to see that each and every township is treated fairly.”
All ballots in Johnston County will include the alcohol referendum, while precincts in Clayton will include a separate referendum with the same two prompts. Voters can select “for” or “against” to the question “To permit ‘on-premises’ and ‘off-premises’ sale of malt beverages/unfortified wine.”
Braswell actually voted against combining on- and off-premises sales in the same question, thinking it could make the referendum harder to pass for its intended purpose, which is getting beer in country stores.
“I thought it may help the passage of this particular referendum if they were split up,” Braswell said. “People may really understand the off-premises part; though they might not agree with it, they may be able to hold their nose and vote for it. For some, on-premises sales may be too much of a stretch; it may create some heartburn. My goal is, number one, to allow off-premises sales.”
To Braswell, the referendum isn’t so much searching the hearts and morals of voters, as it might have been perceived in the past; instead, it is a question of the free and fair market. Also, Johnston County has added more than 60,000 residents since it last asked voters about alcohol.
“I think everyone should look and see how our ABC laws are now and how they’re applied in this county, in all areas of the county,” Braswell said. “We may, as well, see our demographics have changed.”
Clayton’s referendum is more administrative than representative of a true culture shift.
“The law needs to be updated,” Mayor Jody McLeod said. “With small businesses and entertainment venues ramping up, being able to serve wine but not beer is a roadblock.”
Coinciding with alcohol getting on the Clayton ballot has been a trend of new bars coming to downtown. McLeod thinks the way Clayton’s law has been written for the last 19 years might have kept this boon from happening sooner. Now, with so many new faces coming into town monthly, if not weekly, McLeod said Clayton wasn’t meeting a certain expectation for the current generation.
“When you leave other parts of the state, of the Triangle, and come to Clayton because you like what we have here, you’re also expecting certain things to be done the way they’re done everywhere else,” McLeod said. “This is a way to modernize the town and move us to where we want to be.”
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson