City staff considering ordinance to allow sale of alcohol within 600 feet of churches

Uncertainty over how a proposed church downtown would impact existing and future development has prompted city staff to pursue an ordinance that would supplant state law and allow them to exist within 600 feet of each other in certain zoning districts.

Initially, city staff planned to handle the conditional use permit application for a church in the vacant space at 427 Central Avenue, at the corner of Central and 5th Street, across from Last Straw Bistro, independently and not pursue the ordinance.

But this week, city staff said they are now working on the issues concurrently.

Tom Micuda, deputy city planning director, said based on concern from the business community about the proposed church’s potential impact on alcohol permits, staff researched the options to remove the conflict under state law.

State law prohibits the issuance of liquor licenses to establishments within 600 feet of churches and schools. The state allows the renewal of licenses for businesses that existed before the church opened.

Micuda said the city had become aware of other Montana communities that had tackled the issue by using the provision of state law that allows cities to create districts where the 600 foot rule doesn’t apply.

“We’ve decided that based on the feedback that we’re getting that it would make sense to advance an ordinance to do something similar to that,” he said.

Staff started researching the options and Micuda said city staff considered applying the ordinance just to the downtown since that’s the current area of interest, but staff believes it could be applied to other zoning districts, such as commercial, industrial and mixed use where taverns and bars are subject to the same distance restrictions.

Staff is developing the proposed ordinance language for consideration, but the decision on adoption is up to the City Commission.

During the June 24 Downtown Development Partnership meeting, David Saenz of the Calvary Chapel of Cascade County, presented his plan for the church.

Initially, DDP members had concerns about the proposed church due to the potential impact to downtown businesses, but said during the June 24 meeting that they were supportive of the city’s effort to enact an ordinance allowing alcohol within 60 feet of churches.

“I don’t think anyone has any issue at all with supporting what you’re doing, it’s more what the impact would be on proposed restaurants and event venues and things like that,” Brett Doney, a DDP member and head of the Great Falls Development Authority, told Saenz.

The city has pushed consideration of the conditional use permit to the July 28 planning board meeting to also bring the alcohol sales ordinance to the board at the same time. That would put it on the City Commission’s agenda for a first reading likely in August and a vote in September, according to city staff.

The ordinance would only apply to bars and taverns and the 600 foot restriction from churches and schools would remain in place for casinos, according to city staff’s proposal.