Liquor referendum possible for November election

WASHINGTON COUNTY – An economic development initiative is aimed at changing Washington CountyÂ’s status as one of FloridaÂ’s three remaining “dry counties.”

Economic development committee, Advance Washington County, is drafting a petition to send to registered voters as one in a series of steps the group is taking to see a referendum regarding the issue placed on a ballot, possibly as soon as this fall. The petition will ask for voter input on bottle shops and consumption of alcohol on premises in restaurants.

Once the required 25 percent of voters complete the petition, the committee will request the Board of County Commissioners set an election date within 60 days. If voters approve the measure, the Board of County Commissioners will implement ordinances to accompany the election results, and the results will be passed on to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, through which interested parties may apply for a license.

Advance Washington County spokesperson Cindy Birge stresses the reasons behind the effort have little to do with providing easier access to alcohol.

“This is about economic development,” said Birge, giving the example of impacts of restaurants in other Florida locations. “A researcher for a similar initiative in Madison County looked at Applebee’s and Ruby Tuesday in Lake City, the sort of businesses that won’t consider locating in a dry county. There, they each employ between 45-60 people. In Columbia County, Applebee’s alone generated more than $3 million in tax revenue in one year.”

“Most importantly,” she added, “I feel each registered voter in the county has the right to make this decision.”

If the required 25 percent of signatures is reached, voters will first vote to allow the sale of wine and intoxicating liquors and then on the method of sale, selecting from “by package only” or “by package and by drink”.

The number of “bottle store” locations allowed to sell alcohol is limited by population at one license for every 7,500 residents. With the last U.S. Census data showing Washington County as having a population of approximately 24,896, that would mean no more than three licenses available for stores. Restaurants that derive more than 51 percent of revenue from food sales and have available seating for 150 or more in at least 2,500 square ft. may obtain a special license to sell beer, wine, and liquor for consumption on premise. Other factors, such as zoning requirements and a 500-ft. setback from schools, will also apply.

Currently, Washington, Lafayette, and Liberty counties are FloridaÂ’s only remaining dry counties. 

Advance Washington County hopes to have the referendum on the ballot of a special election as early as this November.