WASHINGTON COUNTY – Petitions to place the sale of liquor in Washington County on a special ballot have begun arriving in the mailbox of county voters.
The petition was drafted by Advance Washington County, a local economic development committee and is aimed at changing Washington County’s status as one of Florida’s three remaining “dry counties.”
Similar to the way candidates qualify by petition to run for office, the petition addressing alcohol is only the first step in having the issue placed on a county ballot and must gain the signature of 25 percent of Washington County’s registered voters. The countdown on the committee’s 60-day time frame began last week when the first petitions were mailed, putting the deadline to gain the needed signatures at the end falling at the end of September.
Supervisor of Elections Carol Rudd must certify the signatures. If enough are collected to place the issue on a ballot, voters will first vote to allow the sale of wine and intoxicating liquors and then on the method of sale, selecting from “by package only” or “by package and by drink”.
Advance Washington County stresses the reasons behind the effort have little to do with providing easier access to alcohol.
“This is about economic development,” said spokesperson Cindy Birge, “Many businesses won’t even consider locating in a dry county.”
“Most importantly,” she added, “I feel each registered voter in the county has the right to make this decision.”
Javier Valdovinos, owner of Javier’s Mexican Grill, says he would welcome the change – and is prepared to grow his service to offer more bar items.
“I think it would be good for the county because people are more likely to stay locally to eat than go out of town,” he said. “Money that usually goes to other counties could stay right here in our community.”
The measure is not without public opposition, however.
Richard Burke, former Washington County deputy and President of the Chipley Hellfighters motorcycle ministry says the risk to the family unit isn’t worth any amount of revenue.
“As a deputy, I saw first-hand the effect alcohol consumption had on many families,” said Burke.
“I have never seen alcohol improve relationships in families. I saw men commit crimes that I believe they would not normally have committed but were encouraged by their intoxicated state of mind.”
“Liquors stores, bars - Holmes County has all these, and I don’t see much development in that county,” he added. “If we have become so dependent of something that ruins so many lives and can be abused so easy just because it brings in money, what will be next?”
The number of “bottle store” locations allowed to sell alcohol is limited by population at one license for every 7,500 residents. With the last U.S. Census data showing Washington County as having a population of approximately 24,896, that would mean no more than three licenses available for stores. Restaurants that derive more than 51 percent of revenue from food sales and have available seating for 150 or more in at least 2,500 square ft. may obtain a special license to sell beer, wine, and liquor for consumption on premise. Other factors, such as zoning requirements and a 500-ft. setback from schools, will also apply.
Currently, Washington, Lafayette, and Liberty counties are Florida’s only remaining dry counties.