Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

TOP STORY > > Ward will go to court over liquor license

By HEATHER HARTSELL
Leader staff writer

The Ward City Council voted Monday night to file an appeal in Lonoke County Circuit Court to fight the state Alcohol Beverage Control Board’s decision granting Winn Knight a private-club liquor license despite public opposition at an ABC hearing on March 19.

The city is given 30 days to file an appeal after ABC granted Knight his license.

During the special called council meeting, nearly 30 residents and church officials voiced their objections and asked questions about Knight’s proposed family-oriented, relaxed-atmosphere, alcohol-serving restaurant, which will be located adjacent to

Dude’s Place at the intersection of Highways 38 and 319.

The residents had learned of the meeting earlier in the day and were told the council would be discussing whether or not the city would take further action against Knight’s private-club license, which would allow him to serve alcohol to club members, just like Chili’s in Jacksonville, even though Lonoke County is dry.

Knight was not at the meeting and later told The Leader no one had bothered to inform him of the meeting so he could answer questions from residents.

According to Mayor Art Brooke, all that the city had to do was notify the media within 24 hours of a called council meeting and within two hours for an emergency meeting, so a more advanced notice wasn’t needed.

When informed of the council’s plan to appeal the decision, Knight said that was the city’s right and he would take his case all the way to the Arkansas Supreme Court if he had to.

“I satisfied all of ABC’s requirements, and it is the city’s right to appeal that decision,” Knight said.

“They (the city of Ward) have an uphill battle, and I will take it as far as I have too. I’ve been working on this for the past three years — I’m in it for the long haul,” he said.

Everyone speaking against Knight said they were morally opposed to having alcohol in Ward and didn’t see the need for a restaurant that serves alcohol. They were also concerned about people’s safety and urged the city council to appeal ABC’s decision.

Knight said he didn’t think religion should play a part in whether or not people should have the opportunity to sit down and eat a meal with a glass of wine or beer.

“I understand their concerns, but I don’t think they’ve taken the time to talk with me about their concerns,” he said.

“I don’t think that people who don’t drink have the right to decide for others whether or not they should be able to have a drink with their meal,” Knight added.

Aldermen Charles Gastineau and Ginger Tarno believed it would be better if a private organization or group of concerned citizens led the appeal, but other council members disagreed.

“I understand the emotions and that citizens don’t want this, but I’m wondering if it’s in the best interest of the city to be the lead in this and be expending public monies to fight this,” Gastineau said. “Let a private organization take the lead and we support them,” he said.

Tarno agreed, saying the city wouldn’t bow out of the appeal, but rather assist the group that filed.

Ward City Attorney Clint McGue told the council it would be a tall hurdle to clear to have the ABC board’s decision overturned and upheld.

“I think whoever does it is in store for a lot of litigation. The burden of proof is on those that appeal and it is a high burden,” he said. “It might be daunting, but it is certainly doable. I think it will be a struggle.”

When asked how much it would cost to appeal the decision, McGue told the council it would be less if the city lost in circuit court, but the cost would be about $5,000, more if the city retains a lawyer with experience in the matter.

Knight said he will start building in the summer and hopes to have his establishment open within a year.

His building plans must still be approved by the Ward Planning Commission as well.

“He went through the process to get the permit and we have to accept that from this point on,” McGue said.

“We now have to ensure he meets the rules and regulations set out that apply to private club facilities and zoning. The only way we can prevent it from coming in is as a structural standpoint, with the same review as would do for a Dollar General coming in – making sure it meets the zoning and building requirements.