City Commission approves downtown church permit; removes distance requirement for alcohol sales from churches

City Commissioners unanimously approved an ordinance to remove the restriction for the sale of on-premise alcohol sales within 600 feet of church.

The proposed change came about when the city received a conditional use permit application for a church in the vacant space at 427 Central Ave., on the corner of Central and 5th Street across from Last Street Bistro.

The church submitted a formal application for the permit, which under local and state laws, requires consideration by the city and is subject to City Commission approval.

City Commission to consider ordinance change for alcohol near worship facilities; permit from church for downtown location

Commissioners also unanimously approved the CUP for the church, meaning they can move into the downtown space, so long as they meet all other city codes within the space.

Some commissioners were confused over what the ordinance would change, how it would relate to alcohol sales near schools or what the planning board’s recommendation to include casinos in the change would mean.

Downtown church, ordinance change for alcohol sales get initial approval

The ordinance change will, in simple terms, allow the sale of liquor within 600 feet in city zoning districts where the sale of alcohol and churches are already allowed to exist.

Had the commission not changed the ordinance and approved the church permit, the state law requiring 600 feet between churches and alcohol would have limited future downtown development.

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

The city planning board had recommended including casinos in the ordinance to allow them within 600 feet of churches in zoning districts where either use is allowed, but city staff did not recommend that version since it had not been much of a request from businesses and staff didn’t believe public sentiment would support such a change, according to Craig Raymond, city planning director.

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

The ordinance change does not remove the distance requirement around schools.

Great Falls is not the first city to use the provision in state law that allows municipalities to create districts where the 600 foot rule doesn’t apply. City staff modeled their ordinance change after Kalispell’s, which was enacted in 2008.

Several people spoke in favor of the ordinance change, including a downtown business owner and Brett Doney of the Great Falls Development Authority.

Proposed church downtown could conflict with development, liquor licenses

Raymond said that city staff started hearing significant concern about the church’s proposed location well before the church even submitted its application.

Raymond said that’s why staff went looking for a way to make it work.

“Why not try to look for a win-win situation,” Raymond said. “This is a result of city staff trying… to find a positive solution that would take care of everybody.”