February 25, 2011

Petition drive is underway to get a mixed drink referendum for northern Hatteras villages


By IRENE NOLAN


Businesses in the northern Hatteras Island villages of Avon, Rodanthe, Waves, and Salvo are collecting signatures on a petition asking for a referendum on serving mixed drinks in restaurants.

The organizers of the petition drive are mostly restaurants owners, though other businesses are supporting the effort by gathering signatures on petitions in their stores.

Currently, businesses in the northern villages can sell only beer and wine or get “brown-bagging” licenses, so customers can bring in their own alcohol and buy set-ups.

The last time the northern villages voted on mixed drinks was an island-wide referendum in November, 2007, which was defeated.

It was defeated by decisive margins in those villages.  In Avon, the vote was 133 against and 80 in favor.  In the tri-villages, 115 voted against and 74 were in favor.

The vote was much closer in the southern villages of Hatteras Township.  In Hatteras village, the referendum passed, and in Buxton and Frisco, it barely lost.

After a referendum fails, another is not allowed under state election law for three years, according to Melva Garrison, director of the Dare County Board of Elections.

Last fall, three years after the 2007 vote, Hatteras Township business owners started a petition drive for a new referendum.  The organizers said they felt that the referendum had a better chance of winning in the southern villages.

They were right.  The vote on mixed drinks in Buxton, Frisco, and Hatteras restaurants and some other venues passed by a decisive margin – 63 percent for and 37 percent opposed.

Southern Hatteras Island restaurants began serving mixed drinks this week.

Now, business owners in Avon and the tri-villages, who feel they are at an economic disadvantage, want to try again also.

Some restaurant owners say that they did not realize that last fall’s vote was only for the southern villages until late in the process.

They did try to get a petition drive underway, but Garrison said they did not gather the required number of signatures from registered voters only in Avon, Rodanthe, Waves, and Salvo.

She said since it’s been more than three years since there was a vote on mixed drinks in those villages, there can be another petition drive this year.  But, she said, the organizers must start from scratch and cannot use the signatures from last year.

Garrison said the petition must have the signatures of 25 percent of the registered voters in the respective villages.  That will be 326 signatures.

Since most restaurants are closed now for the winter on the island, the organizers are placing the petition in businesses that are open, are going door-to-door, and are talking to people outside the post offices.

Jomi Price and her husband, Danny, owners of Mac Daddy’s restaurant in Avon, are helping gather signatures and hope the fact that mixed drinks are legal in southern island restaurants will “open the door” for the northern villages.

“It’s been slow, but we’re getting there,” said Denise Sawyer, who with her husband, Fred, owns the Froggy Dog restaurant in Avon.

“If we don’t try,” she said, “everyone will lose business on northern Hatteras Island.

That view is shared by Ron Lemasters, who with his wife, Debbie, owns Down Under restaurant in Waves.

Lemasters thinks more visitors will start renting cottages in the southern villages because of the availability of mixed drinks in restaurants.  If that happens, he said, all of the northern island businesses will lose money.

He said he already loses food sales to visitors who want to have a mixed drink with their dinner.

“I’ve had 10-tops walk out of here,” he said, “because two people in the party want to have a drink with dinner….They go to Nags Head.”

He said he has also watched as restaurant patrons sit in their vehicles in the parking lot and have a few drinks before they come in to buy dinner.

"REAL Watersports, Watermen's Retreat, and Mojo's Sunset Cafe all support liquor by the drink,” said Trip Forman, an owner of those businesses. “The current laws were set in place a long time ago and do not reflect the current demographic of tourists that frequent the Outer Banks, nor are they conducive to the growth and sustenance of this important market.
 
“Our clients travel here from all over the world looking for the best watersports, accommodations, meals, weddings, group events and services,” he added. “With how far the island has come with regards to providing this high level of experience to an international clientele, not being able to order your favorite drink because of an outdated law no longer makes sense.”

In the past, the sale of liquor in restaurants has been opposed by voters on moral and/or religious grounds, and churches have taken a lead in defeating past votes.

The organizers of the petition drive are hoping to have enough signatures to set a referendum in May, perhaps as early as May 3.

Time is running out to make that date, but Garrison said that the referendum can be set anytime at least 60 days after and not more than 120 days after the county Board of Elections verifies the 326 signatures and the board sets a date for the vote.

The only signers who will be verified she said are registered voters in Avon, Rodanthe, Waves, and Salvo. Visitors, residents who are not registered to vote, or residents of other villages will not be counted.

“I wish them luck with their project, not winning or losing but getting the signatures,” Garrison said.

The organizers of the petition drive invite anyone who wants to help to call the Froggy Dog business office at 995-5558.



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