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Correction: This story was updated at 9:55 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, to state every registered voter in Walker County will be able to vote on the ballot question asking whether restaurants within 150 feet of a church should be allowed to sell alcohol by the drink. A previous version stated only voters in unincorporated areas of Walker County will be able to vote on it.

After more than a month of public outcry and negotiations, the public will decide whether restaurants can serve alcohol within 150 feet of a church in Walker County, Georgia.

Commissioner Shannon Whitfield and other county officials announced that a question will be put on the May 19 ballot asking voters whether restaurants within 150 feet of a church should be allowed to sell alcohol by the drink.

Whitfield plans to sign a resolution at Thursday's commission meeting making the ballot question official.

Every registered voter in Walker County will be able to vote on the question.

Whitfield said in a statement that he decided on the ballot question as a compromise between those who wanted to eliminate all distance requirements and those who want the 300-foot buffer to remain.

"This issue first came to my attention when a local restaurant owner was unable to obtain a license to sell alcohol because his business was located 297.5 feet from a church," Whitfield said. "Several business owners in similar situations have since reached out to me."

What the ballot will say

“Shall the governing authority of Walker County reduce the distance requirement from the front door of a church building to the front door of a bona fide eating establishment (as defined in Chapter 6 of the Walker County Code of Ordinances) from 300 feet to 150 feet for on-premise consumption of malt beverages, wine, and distilled spirits in the unincorporated areas of Walker County?”

Voters will choose YES or NO.

Whitfield said he has also talked with many residents and local pastors who believe the 300-foot buffer should stay.

"We all desire more dining opportunities in Walker County," he said.

The ballot question only deals with the distance requirement between churches and restaurants that serve alcohol. Existing distance requirements for bars, taverns and package stores would keep the 300-foot buffer.

Robert Wardlaw, economic and community development director for Walker County, said the ability for the county to attract new full-service dining opportunities continues to be an important piece of economic development.

"As we grow as a county and attract more tourists, it's vital that businesses have flexibility with real estate to invest here," Wardlaw said. "New restaurants will enhance our sales tax revenue stream and reduce pressure off of property taxes."

The change was originally proposed in December to mirror an updated state law. Whitfield and Wardlaw had said the move was a business-friendly change first proposed by the owners of Five Points Farm House.

The restaurant owners reached out to the county and said they felt hampered by the county rule that prohibited them from selling alcohol.

The restaurant is located about 20 yards from Chickamauga city limits and just under 300 feet from a nearby church.

In January, a few people spoke out against the changes. One of them was Rick Tallent, a pastor in Walker County. Tallent said Whitfield was trying to rush the process and that he doubted any pastor in the county would be in favor of the change.

At the next public hearing, more than 20 people showed up and a majority of them spoke out against the changes.

The reaction made Whitfield reconsider the proposed ordinance change.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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