Johnston County voters will get to decide on countywide alcohol sales when they go to the polls in November.
After hearing from the public in April, Johnston County commissioners voted Monday to place on the ballot a referendum on the sale of malt beverages, such as beer, and unfortified wine at county businesses.
Johnston County is dry, but towns have held their own votes over the years and passed laws with varying limitations. The county approved mixed-drink sales in 1997, but voted down beer.
Because of that, grocers and convenience stores in the county say they’ve suffered while their customers bypass them to go into towns to purchase alcohol. Rural store owners asked the county to make things equal and fair by allowing them to sell malt beverages and wine to be consumed off-premises.
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Chairman Tony Braswell says he supports the goal of November’s referendum of helping those businesses compete. But both Braswell and Commissioner Jeffrey Carver voted against the referendum because it would also allow people to purchase and consume alcohol at the business as well as take it home. Both said they fear that could cause confusion among voters or defeat the entire referendum.
“I think when you add on- and off-premises on the ballot ... it may be hard for some voters to swallow,” Braswell said. “Voters maybe could hold their nose and vote for off premises ... We were just afraid it was going to create headwind for the referendum to pass.”
Braswell said he and Carver did not want to put any obstacles in the way of business owners being allowed to sell alcohol for consumption off-premises, and Braswell said he feared a vote on allowing both might be “too much of a leap.”
Because liquor by the drink passed in 1997, Johnston County businesses with a mixed-beverage permit already can sell beer on and off premises.
The referendum would not affect town laws, said County Attorney Jennifer Slusser. Vice Chairman DeVan Barbour called the current system of different rules for towns and the county “messy” and said a referendum potentially could “clean it up” by creating more uniform, equal regulation.
Barbour also said some had criticized allowing more alcohol sales in the county, saying that it would have “honky-tonks popping up around the county.”
“That’s not allowed in zoning,” Barbour said. “You’d still have to come in for special-use permits and that kind of thing.”
Braswell said commissioners had not heard from business owners requesting on-premises alcohol sales. Businesses instead were looking to compete with incorporated areas in off-premises sales.
“I think off-premises is fine,” Braswell said, adding that if people wanted different, more lenient rules, they could move to towns in the county.
The commissioners did not hold a public hearing on whether to place the referendum on November’s ballot, and no one spoke about it during the public comment period of Monday’s meeting.
Abbie Bennett: 919-553-7234, Ext. 101; @AbbieRBennett