The Oconee County Board of Commissioners last week voted to approve the beer and wine license for University 16 Cinema after the theater owner scaled back from three to one the number of auditoriums in which food and alcohol would be sold.
That change led County Attorney Daniel Haygood to drop his opposition to the request and conclude that a restaurant that includes a theater does not necessarily violate the county’s definition of a restaurant as spelled out in the beer and wine ordinance.
Frank Bishop, developer of the $76 million Epps Bridge Centre, where the theater is located, lobbied hard for the beer and wine license, even showing up at the Tuesday night meeting to ask commissioners to approve the request.
Commissioners Margaret Hale and Jim Luke both expressed concerns about the request by Georgia Theatre Company for the beer and wine license but joined with Commissioner Mark Saxon to approve the permit. The theater is scheduled to open June 14.
Commissioner John Daniell chaired the meeting in the absence of vacationing BOC Chairman Melvin Davis, and Daniell did not vote on the license request.
County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko told the Board before it voted that the county has never audited any restaurant to determine that it met a key portion of the beer and wine ordinance requiring restaurants to derive at least 75 percent of their gross income from food rather than alcohol sales.
Chambliss Promises To Follow Rules
Georgia Theatre President Bo Chambliss, son of U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, told the commissioners he would play by the rules. He said he would serve food but not beer and wine in the two auditoriums in the 16-screen complex that he had earlier identified as places where alcohol could be consumed.
He said patrons would be free to eat sandwiches and other food from the theater’s restaurant in any of the 16 stadiums, but three of those facilities would have larger seats and tables making it more comfortable to eat in them.
He also said only persons 21 years old or older would be allowed in the single theater in which beer and wine will be sold by servers. Patrons also can take beer and wine into that theater on their own from the restaurant, he said.
Commissioner Luke implored Chambliss, “Don’t let me down on this.” Hale made a similar plea.
Haygood’s Earlier Recommendation
Chambliss on March 28 told County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko and County Attorney Daniel Haygood that he wanted “to try to find a way” to serve beer and wine in several auditoriums in the theater without seeking a change in the county ordinance restricting the sale of these beverages to restaurants.
County Attorney Haygood told Davis and Benko on April 12 that he and B.R. White, director of planning and code enforcement for the county, had concluded the county could issue Chambliss a beer and wine permit for the theater only after the county made changes in its ordinance.
Haygood wrote to Chambliss on April 15, offering him three options.
First, Haygood said, Chambliss could submit the application with the current ordinance and let the BOC “decide if they believe this fits the definition of a restaurant.”
Second, Chambliss could submit an application for a stand-alone restaurant only.
The third option, Haygood said, would be for Chambliss to seek a change in the ordinance.
Haygood told the commissioners on Tuesday night that after Chambliss scaled back to the request for beer and wine sales in a single theater he and White revisited the issue and decided it fit the current law.
“As originally configured we thought it did” violate the ordinance, Haygood said in response to a question from Commissioner Saxon. “As refined, there is no significant way it violates the terms of the ordinance.”
Haygood also told the commissioners they had a lot of latitude in making decisions on applications.
“Your ordinance gives you a good deal of discretion of what you grant and what you don’t grant on an application,” he said.
Sports Bar And Theater
Haygood said he and White had concluded that there isn’t much different between a sports bar and a theater.
Since the county currently allows patrons to buy beer and wine and watch a television inside a restaurant, he said, it makes sense to allow them to buy beer and wine and watch a movie on a theater screen.
The county’s beer and wine ordinance, passed in 2008, says a restaurant is “an established place of business actively in operation within Oconee County, Georgia, where meals with substantial entrees selected by the patron from a full menu are served during hours of operation.”
Restaurants are further described by reference to the county’s Unified Development Code as being of four types, none of which fits either a sports bar or a movie theater.
Commissioner Hale said she felt it was quite a stretch to label a theater as a restaurant.
Confusion Over Ordinance
Haygood reassured Hale during the discussion that Chambliss would have to meet the county’s rules on the balance between food and alcohol sales, and Chambliss said the county could look at every receipt from the restaurant.
In fact, the county ordinance does not require that each receipt show that 75 percent of the ticket is for food and 25 percent maximum is for beer and wine, though Haygood mistakenly said it did during the discussion.
The ordinance states that the gross income for the restaurant has to reflect that balance.
It further states that each sale by the restaurant “which includes an alcoholic beverage” also must “include a reasonable order of a meal or appetizer.”
Benko acknowledged, the county has never audited either of these requirements.
The county issues a license for a year, and applicants must come back when the license expires to seek a renewal.
Bishop One of Four
During the public comment on the GTC permit request, four persons spoke.
John Wegel and Sarah Bell said the current ordinance did not fit with the request.
Maria Caudill expressed concern about how restrictions on access to the areas in which beer and wine is to be sold would affect safety in case of an emergency.
Epps Bridge Centre developer Bishop asked the commissioners to approve the permit request, saying it would be “good for the county” to have a restaurant in a high quality theater.
Chambliss made the unusual request of asking for permission to make a PowerPoint presentation to the BOC in support of his application.
That presentation, shown below, runs five and a half minutes.
Normally applicants simply appear before the BOC and take questions. Most discussions are quite brief.
The discussion on Tuesday night, including the presentation by Chambliss, lasted 36 minutes.
I was not able to attend the meeting. The video clips here are taken from a recording of the meeting made for me by Sarah Bell.