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Restriction of Beer, Wine Sales on Ballot in Newland, Issue Creates Divide in Small Town

Editor’s Note: Nearly 90 percent of the 256 Avery County residents to vote early and submit absentee ballots as of Monday in the municipal elections reside in Newland.

While Newland featured the only early voting site in Avery County, it also has alcohol sales on the ballot. Below is a re-run of an article published in September.

By Jesse Wood

Newland residents will have a chance to kick alcohol sales out of town in November.

In August, the Newland Town Board were approached by Avery County citizen Steve Nelson, who lives outside of Newland city limits, about restricting beer and wine sales in town due to religious reasons. The board decided to put the matter up to the citizens.

The five-member board voted 3-0 (Stanley Hollifield, Susie Potter, and Thomas Jackson) with two members abstaining (Roxanna Roberson and Donetta McKinney) to have the issue resolved on Election Day.

A town with a population of about 700 people, Newland has only been selling wine and beer for the past six years. Voters barely approved the sale of beer and wine in establishments around town in 2009.

According to Avery County Board of Elections Deputy Director Caleb Hogan, 121 people (53.78 percent) voted for the sale of malt beverages and 104 folks voted against the sale. As for unfortified wine, 121 people (54.26) voted for the sale of wine and 102 voted against in 2009.

Since the Newland Town Board decided to put this measure on the ballot again, this issue has generated quite a bit of interest.

It’s been described as a “very touchy subject” among folks who don’t want to be put on record stating their opinion for fear of losing business or their jobs and angering family. The issue has also been dividing Christians, according to a resident that didn’t want to be quoted in the paper.

Steve Nelson owns about half an acre in town and 30 to 40 acres outside the town limits. He lives and operates his body shop outside of Newland.

Nelson said that he has to pay his employees quite a bit of money to pick up beer and wine bottles that are strewn on his properties and he also cited several statistics about the high rate of alcohol related deaths and car accidents related to drinking.

“I just assume have a town like Mayberry,” Nelson said. “… I go to church and the Lord just put it in my ear for about a year to do something about it. It’s just religious reasons.”

Nelson “and family” recently put an ad on the front page of the independent newspaper, The Avery Post. In addition to quoting two biblical passages, the ad reads: “Churches, Christians, People, Avery County … Let’s Stand Together. Vote ‘No’ on Beer and Wine in Newland – November 3rd.”

Nelson said he’s contacted about 50 churches in the area to seek support to ban beer and wine sales in town. He said of the 50 pastors he’s spoken to, only one didn’t seem supportive of his crusade. He plans to call many more before the election.

Ed Briggs is the president of the Newland Business Association. Briggs said that the association hasn’t taken a side and will not “take a firm stance” on this matter.

“Because we have some members that are for it and some against it. We decided it was best that we not take a position on it either way and just encourage people to get out and vote whatever their heart leads them to vote,” Briggs said.

However, Briggs mentioned a “burden” that taxpayers would have to shoulder if wine and beer sales no longer exist in Newland after the 2015 municipal elections.

“You know there’s going to be backlash from it one way or another. It’s not just cut and dry or right and wrong. It affects the tax base. It effects the businesses in our town and ultimately the Newland Business Association exists because we support the businesses in our town and there are a number of businesses that depend on beer and wine sales,” Briggs said.

Briggs mentioned that one of these businesses was Fabio’s Restaurant.

“Fabio’s wine pairing on the weekends is the biggest part of his business, and [owner Fabio Brocco] has already stated that if the beer and wine sales cease that he’ll walk away from it,” Briggs said.

Speaking about it personally and not as the president of the NBA, Briggs said that he sees where both sides are coming from.

“If any, my position is if someone has a drinking problem they are going to get alcohol one way or another. If they drive out of town or out of the county or wherever they are going to go to get that, it’s going to put them on the road even more,” Briggs said. “A lot of people like a glass of wine with their meal and there’s not a thing in the world wrong with that.”

Briggs mentioned that Lowe’s grocery store was ready to close down and move in 2009 before the voters approved the sale of beer and wine. He added that it wouldn’t “surprise” him if Lowe’s closed up shop if the vote goes against alcohol sales.

Nelson said that revenue from the ABC tax is about $3,000 per year, which Town Manager Joletta Wise confirmed. However, Wise said that this figure doesn’t count the “sales and use” tax of beer and wine sales that is derived from the 6.75 percent state sales tax.

Wise said that she’s received public records requests from citizens to try to answer what the total figure would be if both figures were added together. She said she spent all day on the phone with the N.C. Department of Revenue trying to separate sales categories of all the different stores – to no avail.

When asked her thoughts on this issue, Wise stayed diplomatic like some others in town.

“It surprised me when it came up this time [in August],” Wise said. “I’ll say that.”