Green Forest faces controversy over Sunday alcohol sales
GREEN FOREST -- The City of Green Forest is in an uproar over an ordinance passed in 2009 banning the on-premise sale of alcohol on Sundays.
City officials are working to rewrite the ordinance to accommodate restaurant owners who are fuming after being told, erroneously, that the city code already permitted Sunday sales.
City officials changed their tune on that point last week, after local religious leaders complained that Sundays were for pews, not pilsners.
Meanwhile, the director of the agency responsible for regulating the sale of alcohol in Arkansas has all but declared the 2009 ordinance illegal, and the owner of a local bar has threatened to sue the city should they implement the changes that have been proposed.
The saga began in March of 2009, when Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe approved legislation erasing the state's long-standing Sunday prohibition.
The new law allowed for the on-premise sale of alcohol between the hours of 10 a.m. and midnight, provided that the regulated establishment had a valid permit. Municipalities and counties were reserved the right to further restrict by ordinance the hours during which alcohol was sold.
Tom Lawrence owns Brew-Cue, a bar located on the town square in Green Forest. When he heard about the legislation in 2009, he went before City Council and told them he intended to sell alcohol on Sundays.
That announcement sparked outrage among some in the community, prompting the city to pass an ordinance limiting the hours during which alcohol could be sold on Sundays-- to zero.
That's where Michael Langley comes in. Langley is director of the Arkansas Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control. He said the city had the right to place stricter limits on Sunday alcohol sales, but only to a point.
"I don't believe they have the right to limit the hours to the point of taking away the rights granted by the state," the director said Monday.
Though he said his agency would not intervene in the situation, Langley added that the ordinance could leave the city vulnerable to a lawsuit.
"This is something that is a legitimate issue and could be open to litigation," he said.
Lawrence did not have the benefit of Langley's counsel back in 2009, though he did consult with attorneys of Langley's agency on several occasions. Each time, he said, he was told that the city was within its rights.
And, so, Lawrence kept his mouth shut -- until recently.
Stacy Miller owns Boontoolies Sports Bar, which opened on the square in May. It was shortly before then that Miller approached Green Forest Mayor Charles Reece with a question.
He asked the mayor, "What's it gonna take to be open on Sundays for football season?"
Miller also brought up The Little Familia.
The Little Familia is a Hispanic restaurant located on the western fringe of Green Forest. According to city officials, the owners of that restaurant, unlike Lawrence, never stopped selling alcohol on Sundays after 2009.
The owners could not be reached for comment by deadline.
After Miller approached him, the mayor consulted the existing ordinance for guidance. He found it vague. Though he was not certain of the law's intent, he said he wanted to be fair to Miller. So, he told him that if he installed a commercial kitchen in the new establishment, he could also sell alcohol on Sundays.
In addition to requiring a kitchen, the mayor asked that Miller not open until noon, so as not to offend the sensibilities of nearby churchgoers, who had been vocal opponents of the 2009 ordinance.
Meanwhile, Lawrence caught wind of Boontoolies plans and went to Reece to demand equal treatment. The mayor -- again wanting to be fair, he said -- consented.
So it was that the beer taps began to flow in Green Forest on the first Sunday in September.
As the beer flowed, the crowds grew. Lawrence said business was good for several weeks. And then it all stopped.
Both business owners were told last week they could no longer remain open on Sundays. Police Chief John Bailey delivered the news to Boontoolies.
Miller said the chief showed up Friday with the news and the threat of a citation if the restaurant did not comply. When Miller presented Bailey with a copy of the 2009 ordinance, as provided by Reece, the police chief told him he was "missing a page."
In fact, Miller said he was missing a page -- the one containing the Sunday prohibition.
The business owners suggested the city's rapid policy change was a concession to local religious leaders, who had opposed the Sunday sales.
Foremost among these critics was Marvin Emmons, pastor of First Baptist Church of Green Forest.
Though the mayor is a member of Emmons' congregation, he said ecclesiastical pressure had not swayed his decision.
Rather, he said, he simply realized the 2009 ordinance had to be changed before anyone was allowed to sell alcohol on Sundays.
Regardless of the mayor's motivation, Miller elected to comply with the city's wishes. Boontoolies was shuttered this Sunday.
"We didn't move here to get in a city fight," Miller said.
Brew-Cue remained open, though only hot dogs and non-alcoholic beverages were served. Lawrence said he didn't want would-be customers to be greeted by only a locked door and no explanation.
Both business owners are hoping for relief when the City Council passes a new ordinance.
City attorney Brad Brown is drafting that ordinance now. Reece said he planned to present the finished product to the affected business owners before taking it to the council in November.
The ordinance Reece described would follow state law in allowing alcohol sales on Sunday. However, it would limit the sales to establishments that have a kitchen.
That would not help Lawrence, whose bar does not currently have a kitchen. He has said he might sue if the city moves ahead with the proposed changes.
Lawrence said he had already spoken with several attorneys, though he had not yet retained one. One attorney assured him he had a case, he said, and he planned to settle on a lawyer within the week.
Lawrence said he thought the city was showing favoritism to Boontoolies by requiring that he have a kitchen.
"I've been there 13 years, and they've not cut me any breaks," he said."
"There's nothing in any law about having to serve food," he added.
It is true that the 2009 law that opened the door to Sunday alcohol sales did not contain a kitchen clause. In fact, the sole requirement for a business to benefit from the law is a valid permit issued by the state.
Furthermore, the only power specifically granted to municipalities by that statute is the power to place limits on the hours of operation.
Lawrence said he was waiting to see how things played out before making any decisions. Indeed, Reece said, it is possible that the council might approve a less restrictive ordinance.
For his part, Miller said the alcohol debacle was symptomatic of a wider problem with the community. He said the town was "a mess."
"Everyone wants to see growth," he said, "but no one wants to see change."
Lawrence said he hoped whatever change came would be administered fairly.
"I don't want them to do anything they're not going to do for anybody else," he said. "I just want them to be fair."
Until then, he said, "Everything is still on the table."