Jan. 25—ALBANY — The debate surrounding a moratorium on alcohol licenses was contentious, and so was the vote, with the Albany City Commission approving a halt on such licenses for 45 days approved by a 4-3 margin on Tuesday night.
The 45-day pause will apply to new applications for package sales and restaurants but will not affect temporary licenses for special events or renewals of existing licenses.
The issue came to a head with the application for beer and wine sales at six Family Dollar stores in the city. The moratorium, which takes effect immediately, includes those applications.
Several pushes to enact moratoriums have failed over the last three years, but on Tuesday the two commissioners who have lobbied for enacting the measures, Ward I Commissioner Jon Howard and Ward VI Commissioner Demetrius Young were joined by Ward III Commissioner Vilnus Gaines, who took office in January 2022, and Mayor Bo Dorough in voting yes.
Howard initially asked for approval of a 90-day moratorium but amended it to half that time after Dorough indicated he would not support the longer time period.
"This is a very difficult issue," the mayor said. "Personally, I feel that government doesn't have the authority to tell anybody they shouldn't sell alcohol. I don't think we should tell people you can't buy alcohol.
"I'm willing to support 45 days. During that time, we can add these changes. That is the compromise I can support, and I'm talking about let's get on it in the morning."
Dorough asked commissioners who would like changes in the city's current ordinance to seek regulations from other cities that reflect their views as discussion guides.
The current ordinance is sufficient to prevent unqualified applicants from being approved, Ward II Commissioner Jalen Johnson said. The commission can reject applications based on established criteria, he said, and he has voted to deny licenses based on those criteria in the past.
The moratorium also will be harmful in terms of discouraging new restaurants and businesses from locating in Albany, he said. Prohibitions on sales aren't in effect. Residents will go elsewhere to make purchases, as evidenced by the number of people who go outside the city on Sundays to make purchases.
"I can see the headlines: 'City of Albany enacts moratorium for 90 days,'" Johnson said. "There goes that gas station. There goes that Mexican restaurant. It aggravates me, because I know people who want to bring businesses to Albany."
The commissioner said he was agreeable to denying the six Family Dollar license requests, if that was the wish of the commission, but he said he could not support a moratorium.
Ward IV Commissioner Chad Warbington, who voted in opposition of the moratorium with Johnson and Ward V Commissioner Bob Langstaff, argued that changes could be made in city regulations without resorting to a halt in licensing qualified applicants.
"If it was truly an emergency, we would have done something about it already," Warbington said.
The commission has in the past made alterations to the ordinance, including measures approved to require the placement of signs at locations for which applications have been made and requiring that applicants purchase more visible newspaper advertisements to alert the public of applications, without halting the issuance of new licenses, Warbington said.
"I think this moratorium is a terrible idea," Langstaff said. "I don't think we have any conception on this board of how many restaurants are thinking about applying for a license in the next 90 days. It is terrible for business. It doesn't limit to either on-premises or off — premises. It's just terrible."
For Howard and Young, the main issue was what they see as the negative impact of alcohol consumption on the population.
"As you know, we recommended a moratorium a few years ago," Young said. "The things that precipitated the request for that moratorium have not changed. In fact, it has gotten worse."
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Young said, a reasonable number of establishments selling alcohol would be about one per 10,000 residents, or 70,000 for Albany. The current number is about 200 bars, restaurants and convenience and package stores.
"This is not about punishing businesses, this is about protecting our community," he said. "If we (don't do this), we will continue to dry up, we will continue to have crime and all those other negative things we say we want to address.
"Alcohol is alcohol. If you're consuming copious amounts, it's going to be a problem for you physically; it's going to be a problem for the community. That's all this is, taking the time to look at the facts."
The proliferation of requests from establishments for alcohol licenses is "greed" on their part, Howard said, and is harmful to the people who have made those businesses profitable over the years.
"It is devastating throughout the entire community, especially to the east side and the south side," he said.
Following the vote, Donny Green, the pastor of Bible Way Missionary Baptist Church in east Albany, and church deacon Billy Taylor said they approved of the commission's action.
"We've already got enough alcohol establishments in our community," Green said. "Albany is already drunk enough. Albany don't need to get no drunker. We've got to pull the brakes somewhere."
The additional businesses and jobs are not worth the costs to the community of more locations where alcohol is sold, Taylor said.
"If they're looking at businesses to come here to sell alcohol, maybe they're looking at the wrong kinds of businesses," he said.