Tuesday, March 19, 2013

TOP STORY >> Liquor may be allowed in township

Leader staff writer

After more than 60 years of being dry, Gray Township, which includes large portions of Sherwood and Jacksonville, may finally get the opportunity to go wet—if Senate Bill 374 passes.

Sponsored by Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock), Rep. Mark Perry (D-Jacksonville) and others, the bill gives residents in defunct townships a chance to decide on the issue of being wet or dry—allowing liquor or not.

English said the bill came at the urging of North Little Rock, Sherwood and Jacksonville officials and their chambers of commerce. The bill, which was approved by more than a two-thirds majority (25 for it, nine against it) in the Senate, is now in the House rules committee which will vote on it this week. Among those voting against the bill was Sen. Jonathan Dismang.

However, English sees no reason for the committee to hold it back and the full House should vote on it next week.

“It doesn’t make any of these areas wet, it just gives them the opportunity to have a local vote on the issue,” English said, adding that without the bill being approved there would be no way to resolve the “dry issue” that has plagued Sherwood, Jacksonville, Little Rock and North Little Rock for years.

Besides Gray Township, the bill also covers three other dry, but defunct townships in Pulaski County. One is in North Little Rock around Park Hill, another northwest of the air base and the other in southwest Little Rock.

In 1956, Pulaski County was made up of 16townships or separate sections. Four of those — Gray, Hill, Bayou Meto and Union — designated themselves dry. But most of the townships are no longer recognized as political entities by the county or state, so township residents have no way to reverse any of the earlier decisions.

The boundaries of Gray Township were readjusted in February 1956 due to some annexations made at the time by Jacksonville. Residents in the newly-aligned township voted on Nov. 6, 1956, to go dry by a vote of 421 against alcohol and 219 for alcohol.

In Sherwood, Gray Town-ship is pretty much everything north of the east-and-west- running Maryland Avenue. In Jacksonville, it encompasses some of the most desirable land that national restaurant chains are looking at.

Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher wants the bill so the city can benefit from the economic impact of more family restaurants like Chili’s, which consistently brings in around $4 million a year in sales.

“With the air base here and its $780 million impact, Jacksonville ought to be home to every name-brand restaurant around. But we are not because of the alcohol restrictions,” the mayor said.

He added that restaurants, like Chili’s, can still come into the Gray Township area of the city as a private club being operated by a nonprofit group to satisfy the requirements of the dry township, but that’s extra hoops a business has to jump through at an extra cost.

“We just lost a restaurant recently because of that reason. They went elsewhere in central Arkansas that was already wet,” he explained.

“When we get 65 percent of our revenue from sales tax, we need more businesses in our area,” he said. “The bill doesn’t mean all of Jacksonville will be wet or that we will instantly have a vote. Someone like the chamber will have to organize a petition asking for the vote and then it’ll be up to the people.”

According to the bill, the Pulaski County Quorum Court would be the body to sanction the election and the only residents allowed to vote would be those living within the boundaries of the defunct township. The cost of any election over the alcohol issue will be covered by the county.

Sherwood Mayor Virginia Hillman also believes it is fair for the voters to have an opportunity to make the decision on alcohol. “The bill doesn’t mandate alcohol,” she emphasized, “it just allows for a local vote.”

She added that a lot of Sherwood residents may not be aware that the city is split between wet and dry. “Our residents, even in the dry areas, are so close to the wet areas, they may not notice, but businesses do.”

The issue of dry townships made its way to the Arkansas Supreme Court in 1985. The court sided with the 1956 election and said those areas were dry.

In 2011, Sherwood officials asked the state’s Alcohol Beverage Control Division if its annexation of a portion of Gray Township changed its status. Sherwood was hoping the annexation made the area wet.

But Don Bennett, an attorney with the ABC, wrote, “The annexation by the city of Sherwood had no effect upon the local option status of Gray Township because the only way that the prohibition placed in effect in 1956 can ever be removed is for the exact same territory, even though it does not any longer legally exist as a separate voting unit, to remove the prohibition.”

Bennett’s decision was based in part on an opinion written by then-Attorney General Mark Pryor in 2002, who said, “Because the theory of local option laws is that the people of a political or governmental unit shall have the right to determine their status, and the correlative right to change it, according to the provisions of those laws, a status once adopted is usually considered to attach to the territory which was originally bound by the vote, and to remain operative, unless lawfully changed.”

That is the catch — there is no lawful way to currently allow the status to be changed. For that to happen, English said, the state Legislature has to pass Senate Bill 374.