Downtown church permit, alcohol code change considered at city planning board

During their July 28 meeting, the city’s planning board/zoning commission will consider a proposed change to city code to address concerns over a worship facility locating in the downtown area and potentially limiting future business development since state law restricts alcohol sales near worship facilities.

During the same meeting, the board will consider a conditional use permit from David Saenz of the Calvary Chapel of Cascade County for a church in the vacant space at 427 Central Ave., on the corner of Central and 5th Street across from Last Straw Bistro.

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

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.

State law also allows cities to create districts where the 600 foot rule doesn’t apply.

Proposed church downtown could conflict with development, liquor licenses

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 and is recommending a code change.

Staff is recommending a code amendment that reads: “As authorized by Mont. Code Ann. §16-3-306(4) and §16-3-309(1), with respect to any type or class of liquor license, the City supplants the provisions of Mont. Code Ann. §16-3-306(1), and eliminates the requirement of a 600 foot distance between a licensed establishment and a church,
synagogue, or other place of worship (identified above in Exhibit 20-1 as Worship Facility). The elimination of this distance requirement is only applicable if the licensed establishment or Worship Facility is or will be located within a zoning district where both uses are permitted or conditionally permitted. The statutory requirements remaining are not supplanted.”

Staff started researching the options and Micuda told The Electric in June that 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.

Initially, Downtown Development Partnership 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.

If the planning board approves the code change and conditional use permit for the church, both would to to City Commission 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.

If the City Commission approves the CUP for the church but doesn’t approve the code change, there would be significant impacts for downtown development.

“If that were to be the outcome, existing properties within 600 lineal feet, in all directions, of the entrance to Calvary Church along Central Avenue and 5th Street South and 5th Street North, would be able to continue to utilize their liquor licenses. However, in the future, anyone wanting a new liquor license, wanting to transfer a liquor license, or modify an entrance where an existing liquor license has been obtained, will not be able to acquire one,” according to the city staff report.

Saenz presented to the DDP in June and the downtown Neighborhood Council in July. The council took no formal action, opting to wait until the city decided on the code change before making a recommendation on the church, but both the planning board and City Commission will consider the actions on the same agenda, according to city staff.

“Staff has received 18 letters and e-mails from the public voicing their support for the church to be located on the subject property. While staff has fielded questions about the project from various entities such as the Downtown Development Partnership and Great Falls Development Authority looking for answers regarding M.C.A. 16-3-306, no formal letters or e-mails in opposition have been received,” according to staff.