When they say Memphis is the Home of the Blues, they're not talking about blue laws. But maybe they should be. The City Council voted last week to prohibit beer sales for off-premise consumption within 500 feet of churches, schools, and most residential areas. Though stores currently selling beer will be grandfathered in, any new stores wanting to locate within the 500-foot restriction will have to be located on a state or federal highway.
"We've got a crime problem, and this is the catalyst," Councilman Joe Brown said during a recent committee meeting, adding that he was speaking from a moral perspective. "That's why this is so important."
But the ordinance wasn't easy for everyone to swallow.
"As I understand it," said Councilman Dedrick Brittenum at a full council meeting, "the existing stores that sell beer have a problem with people loitering around those establishments and selling beer to minors and that sort of thing. The original ordinance on the floor would do nothing to stop that."
As initially proposed by Brown, the ordinance banned off-premise beer sales at stores near single-family homes and duplexes, as well as near schools and churches. Under that scenario, only 8,000 parcels of land would qualify for off-premise beer consumption, compared to more than 25,000 currently eligible.
"It tended to exclude a large portion of the city," said Brittenum.
Citing economic and development reasons, Brittenum offered an alternative that removed residential areas from the ordinance but added a penalty phase.
"We're trying to go to a more livable, walkable, smart-growth city. If that's the case, we may need some stores close to residential areas," Brittenum told fellow council members.
Under smart-growth principles, developments are often built as mixed-use, with residences near, next to, or even above retail stores. A draft of the new Unified Development Code, which lays out zoning and subdivision regulations, has provisions for just such mixed-use areas. In addition, many smaller stores see a large portion of their profit from beer sales.
"If you don't leave out [residences]," Brittenum said, "no new stores will open in residential areas that will sell bread, sugar, your staples. The economics just won't work."
Brittenum also pointed out that the ordinance — as originally proposed — would essentially create a territorial monopoly for existing stores.
"We would be forever grandfathering in those businesses because they will be so valuable they'll never go out of business. Ever," he said.
To solve that particular problem, he suggested a penalty phase to the ordinance: If a store gets three violations in two years, it would lose the privilege of having a beer license. The licensee would lose the right to apply for a new beer license anywhere in the city for the following two years.
Other council members liked the penalty provision but could not be convinced to remove residential areas from the ordinance. In fact, when it was pointed out that the ordinance inexplicably left out a distance requirement for apartments, those areas were added, too.
"I do understand that we're talking about livable communities and walkable communities, but we're also talking about communities where our children are," said Barbara Swearengen Ware during a committee meeting.
Brown said he thought the council was "in the business of eliminating crime."
"There is a lot of criminal activity [at convenience stores]. People who walk to stores for beer have [alcohol and drug] problems," Brown said. "Let's stop this thing, and we can live in a good city."
In a compromise, Brittenum suggested that the ordinance exempt those stores on interstates and state and federal highways, and the measure passed. The ordinance also gives applicants who are rejected by the beer board a chance to appeal directly to the City Council.
Even so, adding residential to the ordinance is an extensive change. Frankly, considering how many areas are now off-limits, I'm surprised that the measure didn't meet with more resistance.
Just two years ago, after a Wal-Mart opened in Whitehaven and wasn't allowed to sell beer at that location, the council considered lowering the distance requirement from schools and churches because members felt it was hampering economic growth.
There might be a lot of churches in this city, but there are a lot more houses, duplexes, and apartment buildings. The stores I can think of that sell beer for off-premise consumption — gas stations, drug stores, places like Miss Cordelia's on Mud Island — are often located close to residential areas.
And for many areas, it's already last call.