Lexington beer garden, church battle in court over alcohol. Here’s what they argued

Photo by Chris Trainor
·5 min read

One of the owners of a would-be beer garden in Lexington has said it would be a dream to open such an establishment on the town’s bustling Main Street. But an attorney for a neighboring church said in court Friday that it would be an “ongoing nightmare.”

A fight over alcohol licenses for Navy Yard on Main Biergarten and Restaurant went to state Administrative Law Court on Friday. St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church, which is next door to the proposed beer garden location, has protested the establishment’s booze permits. Attorneys for both sides argued their case before Judge Shirley Robinson Friday on the State House grounds.

Robinson did not issue a ruling from the bench after Friday’s testimony. She said she will likely publish her decision before the end of the year.

The Navy Yard on Main Biergarten and Restaurant is planned for the corner of West Main Street and North Church Street in Lexington, at the former location of Carpet One. Plans call for 11,000 square feet of outdoor dining space and around 8,000 square feet of indoor dining, and owners have said they would push to have the town’s largest selection of craft beer.

However, St. Stephen’s earlier this year filed a protest with the state Department of Revenue opposing the alcohol licenses for the Navy Yard, saying the establishment was too close to the church and that the location was unsuitable for a beer garden. The alcohol licenses were subsequently denied, pending a court appeal. The Navy Yard halted work on the project until the case could be worked out.

That led to Friday’ administrative law hearing, where there were several hours of testimony.

Attorney Ken Allen, representing the church, said in court that the beer garden could pose a host of problems for the St Stephen’s. He quizzed Gavin Smith, the managing partner of the group that wants to open the bar and restaurant, on what the establishment could do to stop certain issues from impacting the church.

Some of the concerns Allen raised were noise, excess light, litter and beer garden patrons parking in the church’s parking lot. He also suggested the bar could do little to stop customers from loitering, vomiting or even having sex on the church grounds.

“I think it’s physically impossible to have an (alcohol) licensed location any closer to a church than what we have here,” Allen said. “They share common borders on two sides and, depending where the sun comes up, the licensed location would be in the shadow of the church. ... (Smith) has said that opening a beer garden is his dream. Obviously, if he could open it some place else, that would make us happy, because while opening it here may be his dream, we are convinced it’s going to be an ongoing nightmare.”

Smith testified Friday and insisted to Allen that the Navy Yard would take necessary steps to ensure the establishment doesn’t bother the church. He said the beer garden wouldn’t schedule live music events during Sunday or Wednesday services and that he was willing to coordinate with the church to make sure no live music is going on during scheduled church events, such as funerals or weddings. He also said staff from the beer garden would work to keep litter off the church grounds and would communicate to customers that they are not to park at the church.

“We will reinforce good behaviors, and we will encourage all of our patrons and all of our customers to ensure that they are being good citizens and not (causing problems) in the church parking lot,” Smith said.

Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina lawmaker, was among the attorneys representing the Navy Yard and was quick to note the church is already surrounded by establishments, within one block, that are licensed to sell alcohol. Those locations include Libby’s, Alodia’s, Craft Axe Throwing and Keg Cowboy, among others.

Another key argument in court Friday dealt with the distance between the proposed beer garden and the church. By state law, businesses in city limits must be at least 300 feet from a school, church or playground to obtain a business liquor-by-the-drink license.

S.C. Law Enforcement Senior Special Agent Sharon Ford was called to the stand by the Navy Yard’s attorneys. She testified that she measured the distance from a door at the church’s sanctuary building to the Main Street front entrance of the Navy Yard at 310 feet.

The church countered by calling retired SLED Agent Harold Gregory, who worked for years in alcohol licensing, to the witness stand. He argued that the distance should be measured from the church to the rear doors of the Navy Yard, which is a distance of 208 feet. The restaurant says that those doors are an emergency exit and an employee kitchen door, not an entrance to the building for customers. The rear doors also are closed in by a fence.

Sellers keyed on the testimony by Ford and stressed that she is a current employee of SLED with 24 years experience.

“She testified to what the distance was, in her expertise,” Sellers said in his closing argument. “She’s the only expert to testify here today. In her knowledge and 20-plus years of wisdom, she came up with 310 feet.”

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