Bars beside churches? Pastors rip Richland County plan

tflach@thestate.comNovember 25, 2013 

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    Richland County Council will listen to public comment on a proposal to end the buffer between churches and bars in some areas at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the county administration building, 2020 Hampton St., Columbia.

A Richland County Council proposal to do away with buffers that separate churches and bars in selected areas has angered some Columbia-area ministers, who are calling on their congregations to attend a hearing on the plan Tuesday.

The change would allow bars to open next door to congregations in some unincorporated areas if a majority of the 11 council members end the minimum 600-foot setback — slightly more than a tenth of a mile.

“It’s way out of order,” said the Rev. John Culp, pastor at Virginia Wingard United Methodist Church in the St. Andrews area, who met with neighborhood leaders about the plan last week. “To remove it is an outrage.”

The proposal would erase the current distance that a bar must be situated from a church in commercial areas, a step endorsed by the County Planning Commission.

It is aimed at “storefront churches” that are popping up increasingly in traditional business locations like strip malls and near warehouses, said Councilman Norman Jackson of Lower Richland, who proposed the change.

That is creating unintended limits on where bars can locate, Jackson said.

Commercial, manufacturing and industrial areas aren’t meant for religious operations but are becoming attractive as owners seek to lease empty facilities, he said.

But under the proposed measure, even traditional churches located along commercial corridors could be affected. Virginia Wingard is among them, with its Broad River Road location surrounded by strip malls. The proposal would not affect churches in municipalities such as Columbia and Forest Acres, which set their own buffers.

State standards require a distance of at least 500 feet if a bar wants to open near a church. That requirement is policed by state Department of Revenue officials, who verify the distance before giving a bar the go-ahead to open.

Robert Rikard, a Columbia attorney familiar with alcohol licensing issues, predicted the county buffer elimination proposal will prove futile.

It won’t matter what standard the county has in place if state revenue officials decide a bar is too close to a church as determined by law, he said.

“While the county may want to relax its standards, I don’t think the revenue department is going to relax its standards,” Rikard said Monday.

The county proposal would still require bars to observe a 600-foot buffer around schools.

But Virginia Wingard’s Culp said it’s unclear if that includes child care centers operating at many churches if the county setback is repealed.

Elimination of the buffer would invite “an unwelcome change in the environment” around his 59-year-old congregation, Culp said.

Some other church leaders are lining up in opposition to the proposed measure, even though their congregations aren’t threatened by the change.

Among those is the Rev. Dick Lincoln of Shandon Baptist Church in Forest Acres, one of the largest in the Columbia area.

“It doesn’t offer any protection” to many churches from having bars as unwanted neighbors, said Lincoln. He urged hundreds of congregation members attending services this past Sunday to oppose the change.

Staff writer Noelle Phillips contributed to this story.


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