At a special meeting June 4, the Pine River City Council scheduled a 6 p.m. public hearing June 18 to discuss the possibility of repealing the city’s ordinance regulating liquor license sales.
At the May regular meeting, Ryan Nelson of Jr’s No. 19 asked the council for approval of a liquor license for his business. It was discovered through research that an ordinance was passed in 2002 preventing liquor sales within 500 feet of the nearest church. Jr’s is only 408 feet from the Methodist church located on Barclay Avenue.
Mayor Jim Sabas said they were considering amending the ordinance at the June 11 regular council meeting. City clerk Wanda Mongan assured the mayor that the council did not need to hold a special public meeting for the amendment so long as they published the ordinance in the newspaper.
Attorney Ted Lundrigan told the council that, though it could possibly go forward with an amendment as described, doing so might leave the city vulnerable to lawsuit. He advised against amending the ordinance, especially without a special public meeting, and suggested that the council schedule a meeting to discuss the possibility of repealing the ordinance with the public.
“If you repeal it in its entirety you can find a lot of reasons to repeal an ordinance altogether, but to amend it means the purpose for which it was originally passed is no longer applicable to the situation we find ourselves in today,” Lundrigan said. “So we have to explain what has changed. It’s a road with a lot of holes in it. It has to be carefully negotiated.”
Mongan said the ordinance was likely drafted due to an attempt in past years to build a sports bar next to the Artisans building in Pine River. This location is very near to the Methodist church. None of the council members was able to explain exactly what the justification for the ordinance was.
“That interpretation of being so many feet away is ridiculous,” Sabas said.
Lundrigan asked the council to decide if it intended to amend the ordinance or repeal it. He then suggested that the council should hold a public hearing and inform local churches and concerned citizens.
“They told us during the first city council meeting that they didn’t anticipate any problems, and we just went ahead full force,” Nelson said.
Nelson was further frustrated because the Methodist church is also located next to the Pine River Bowling Alley, which was in operation before the ordinance was passed. Lundrigan explained that state statutes give special privileges to bowling alleys regarding liquor licenses, alongside Legion clubs.
“We have to remember there’s other places in town that are within that 500 feet. Grandfathered in or not grandfathered in, should anybody get different treatment?” Nelson asked. “There’s not a place within this town that you’re not within sight of a bar and a church.”
Nelson asked for sympathy from those who would attend the special hearing. He asked people to remember fundraisers and church events that Jr’s No. 19 has hosted in the past. He also said he would respect the opinions of local citizens, and was willing to forego a license for sale of liquor on Sundays, if that is what it would take to satisfy locals.
“I just want the unimpeded right to pursue my business and my business plan,” Nelson said. “I don’t think we’d have any alternative but to close down the actual restaurant here and focus on the other areas that we are doing well in.”
Lundrigan, who has been the Pine River City attorney since 1974, said he does not understand the reason for the ordinance.
“I don’t remember drafting that. I don’t remember working on it. I don’t remember anything about it,” Lundrigan said. “To be honest with you, I don’t know what the issue is.”
Lundrigan said he made his recommendation to the city to hold a public hearing out of concern for constitutionality.
“We have to remember the 14th amendment of the constitution says, ‘Equal protection under the laws,’ and that’s equal protection under both sides of an issue. So, if the city granted an exception for Jr’s and didn’t articulate what interests were being served, there would be, in my eye, the question of the constitutionality of this new ordinance,” Lundrigan said.
Lundrigan said that the ordinance should not be amended to include a different minimum distance, because any distance would be trivial. He also questioned whether the current ordinance followed the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state.
Lundrigan and Nelson encouraged those in support or opposition of the ordinance to attend the June 18 meeting and have their voices heard.
“Give those who have opinions on this issue the chance to speak. If they want to address this issue, then let’s have them do it,” Lundrigan said. “What is the interest that is being served by this ordinance and is that interest in the public benefit?”