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BuzzHIGH SPRINGS – The City of High Springs alcohol ordinance was a source of heated debate at last Thursday’s commission meeting. At the center of the controversy was a business seeking a permit to open on Main Street in downtown High Springs to sell beer, wine and liquor.  The permit request was denied in a quasi-judicial hearing during the meeting.

While the city’s new land code prohibits this type of business because of the proposed location’s proximity to a church, the permit was filed for under the city’s old land code, which is more vague.

City Planner Christian Popoli said it comes down to a matter of code interpretation. He said the city’s plan board rejected the proposal.  But Popoli is unsure of the validity of that decision since the old code had an exception to the alcohol ordinance, allowing package stores selling wine and beer for offsite consumption to be located within 500 feet of a church.

Real estate agent Damon Watson, representing the building’s owner, said it was important to remember that the owner was hoping to sell a product for offsite consumption, just like any other business downtown.

He said the building has been vacant for nine months and is in disrepair. Watson said the new owner is willing to put $150,000 into restoring the 200-year-old building.

“People will vote with their pocketbook and wallet,” he said. “Six months ago, this fell into the realm of being okay. It affects the value of the downtown area.”

Commissioner Eric May said it was essential that the commission interpret the code fairly without trying to make new law. He said he sees no problem with such a store taking up an empty storefront in the downtown area.

“Any of you have heard my diatribe on that [drinking]. But there’s no boisterous activity,” he said. “We’ve heard over and over, High Springs is not business friendly. We said we wanted to fix that.”

Vice-Mayor Bob Barnas said the shop should not be allowed because it is “substantially out of character with the existing neighborhood,” one of the reasons listed in the code to refuse a permit.

When May tried to respond, Mayor Dean Davis instructed him to keep it brief, leading to an argument about legal procedure. Davis banged his gavel, shouting at May that he was out of order.

Since the city denied the permit, the building’s owners have the option to appeal the decision.

Immediately following the permit denial, the commission decided to reverse the alcohol ordinance to its prior state, disallowing restaurants and bars to serve liquor within 500 feet of a church or 600 feet of a school.

Commissioners May and Sue Weller voted against the measure, which will be discussed at length at a future workshop.