Just the Facts

Social district input tops Town Council meeting

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Dan Finnerty

The Town of Franklin Council held its first meeting of the year on Jan. 2. Topping the agenda for the evening was a public hearing to allow comment on a social district proposal. Mayor Jack Horton opened the hearing by stating,

“There are 527 municipalities in the state and since the [North Carolina] General Assembly passed this legislation to allow municipalities to have a social district, which is an area that permits consumption of alcoholic beverages in ‘certain areas at certain times under certain conditions,’ some 30 municipalities have opted to go that route.”

Sylva currently has a social district, while both Waynesville and Murphy town councils decided against one. The mayor reminded those in attendance that the Town requested use of some county-owned, in-town property as part of the district from Macon County Commissioners. With no response received by the county, the Town Council decided to move ahead with a plan, minus those areas.

During the evening, 14 residents addressed the Town Council, with 12 in favor of and two against the proposal.

THE TOWN of Franklin Council unanimously approved a social district at the Jan. 2 meeting. From left: Joe Collins, David Culpepper,  Rita Salain, Mayor Jack Horton, Robbie Tompa, Mike Lewis, and Stacy Guffey. 

First to speak at the input session was Morgan Stewart, Stewart Communications and Marketing Firm, which delivered surveys in person and via email to businesses in and around downtown’s main street area. More than half of the respondents felt a social district would increase business; 82% favored the district as proposed, while 86% thought it would attract visitors to Main Street, and 100% agreed Franklin must compete with neighboring communities for tourism. Stewart pointed out, that along with Sylva, “towns across Western North Carolina, like Brevard, Albemarle, and Hickory, have successful social districts driving growth and visitors and business, with no reported increase in crime.”

Lee Cloer spoke next, also supporting a social district and expressed confidence in the benefits to Franklin. He recollected that some residents had concerns when alcohol sales were first approved for Franklin, back in 2006.

“In 2015, Franklin was awarded ‘best small town’ and then ‘best city to live in’ for N.C. by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2019.” He further offered: “Tourism in Clayton and Sylva has benefited from their social districts for nearly two years and their small-town charms are still fully intact.”

APPROVAL AT the state level still must take place, but the Town of Franklin Council approved a social district in Franklin that will enable consumption of alcohol in certain areas and at certain times. 

Franklin resident Roger Schweitzer was also for the district but cautioned against potential “rowdy” events where people might get “drunk.” He asked the council to be sure to have mechanisms in place to protect against having to support requests that could upset otherwise civil conduct.

“I think you are making a mistake – you’re offering a solution to something that was not a problem,” said former mayor Bob Scott. “Franklin has hosted wonderful, alcohol-free festivals … I ask you to put this issue to a vote of town residents or allow individual festivals to petition the town council to allow alcohol in the same way festival promoters ask for street closings.”

A member of Clayton’s city council, Amanda Harrold, spoke to her town’s experience so far with social districting. She talked to how Clayton took a “tip-toe” approach. 

“We’re approving the social district on a case-by-case basis. It has to promote the merchants. No concerts with open containers; it can be 5-9 p.m. only – no Sundays, no Christmas party nights.”

She added that no cases of public intoxication have occurred and no arrests nor increased police events have taken place as a result of social districting.

“You’re having people consuming alcohol at public events already. Why not try to help ease tension and help businesses,” she stated. Harrold concluded by inviting town council members to attend Clayton’s “block party” March 16, from 5-9 p.m. “Come see that there’s not that open drunkenness happening. It’s done responsibly, if you do it right.”

Lazy Hiker’s Graham Norris and former council member Adam Kimsey were two more speakers in support of social district passage. Lazy Hiker has an additional venue in Sylva, and Norris talked about the successful existence of Sylva’s social district and how civil conduct has continued without incident.

Kimsey reflected on his time as owner/operator of the Rathskeller Coffee Haus and Pub.

“Ninety-nine percent of people who drank within my establishment were never a problem. My primary concern was to protect customers and my business, and I would have been in favor of the district if I still had my business … a lot of research and time and effort has been taken to look at it … there is a lot of data that shows this has been successful and has not caused an uptick in crime in other municipalities that have passed it throughout the state.”

Following the hearing, council members discussed potential next steps in the process. Vice Mayor Stacy Guffey motioned to move forward, with member David Culpepper seconding.

Council member Joe Collins noted that while in the past he was opposed to social districting, it is “something whose time has come.”

Guffey emphasized that if something does go awry with districting, the ordinance can be backtracked, changed, or rescinded, as necessary.

“I would hate to see the culture and character of our town change because of this one particular issue … If I was allowed to vote, I’d vote against it,” Mayor Horton said.

The motion was approved unanimously. Town Manager Amie Owens and Town Attorney John Henning, Jr. reiterated that subsequent steps will need to be taken, including approval at the state level.

Other business

Earlier in the meeting, Rusty Cortopassi was promoted to equipment operator by Public Works Director Bill Deal. Cortopassi has been with the department for about one year and his promotion follows a recent retirement by another employee.

RUSTY CORTOPASSI (right) was promoted to equipment operator by Public Works Director Bill Deal. 

A call for a public hearing on rezoning was requested by Town Planner Justin Setser. The hearing is scheduled for Feb. 5 to receive public input. The affected locations are Second and Cherry Streets. Setser revealed the planning board has been meeting for more than four months to review rezoning changes and send updates back to the council.  The original 13 parcels have grown to 22, and the requested change for all of them is from R2 (commercial) to R1 (residential). Following his update on the process, a hearing to occur at the regularly scheduled town council meeting in February was approved unanimously.

Under new business, Owens requested a street closure for Big Bear Lane on March 22 from 3 to 5 p.m. During that time, the Sowing the Seeds of the Future sculpture will be unveiled and celebrated. Lastly, approval of a vendor, following a request for proposal (RFP) process, was requested in order to acquire a new fire truck within the local fire district for the Franklin Fire Department. Some discussion occurred between council members regarding whether Franklin residents and taxpayers should shoulder the burden of increased taxes for a district that encompasses large areas outside of town limits. The council voted to approve moving forward with the vendor selected following the RFP. Milton Fire Group was the only one meeting all RFP requirements, and in order to move forward in the process, a vendor had to be selected. Once that occurred, negotiations on final price and contract could begin. Following the discussion, the request was unanimously approved.

A Special Called Town Council meeting for the annual retreat was announced for Friday and Saturday, Jan. 26 and 27. The next Town Council meeting is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 5, at 6 p.m. in the Town Hall Board Room.