Saturday, April 13, 2024

‘Last call’ missed for private club law exemption

At downtown Wilmington’s Blue Post Billiards, getting checked at the door means signing up for membership for first-time patrons or non-card-carrying members—the effect of a law requiring “private club” memberships for pubs that sell liquor but not any food.

Same thing at Southport’s Old American Fish Co., a dockside bar that requires that at least one person in a group sign up for membership, with the rest of the group allowed in as his or her guests.

But not all bars require such sign-ups—despite the existing law, which some observers—including state Rep. Susi Hamilton—say is not always enforced across North Carolina.

That seldom enforcement and confusion among establishments were motivations behind a bill introduced in this year’s session of the General Assembly. But with no movement since May, that bill has since died, said Hamilton, the bill’s primary sponsor.

The New Hanover County Democrat, who also represents parts of Brunswick County, noted earlier this session that the bill had lost traction, having been referred to a commerce subcommittee.

“It’s not moving, and it was referred to the ABC subcommittee on commerce, and they’re not going to let it be heard,” Hamilton said. “So it’s dead.”

Earlier this year, Hamilton told the New Hanover County ABC Board her intention to file the bill, which would have allowed exemptions for bars with occupancies of 100 people or less, as opposed to larger nightclubs that she said should have memberships.

Rep. Susie Hamilton updates the board on a bill she plans to sponsor to provide exemptions for small bars and pubs from North Carolina’s private club law. File photo.
Rep. Susie Hamilton updates the board on a bill she plans to sponsor to provide exemptions for small bars and pubs from North Carolina’s private club law. File photo.

Hamilton described the so-called “private club” law as outdated and inconsistent in its enforcement, resulting in bars requiring memberships from patrons sporadically. When enforcement is up, Hamilton said, bars that want to maintain their license must require patrons to sign in as members—a process that she said takes patrons by surprise.

Related story: Bill would exempt bars from ‘private club’ law; Hamilton to sponsor

“I have watched bartenders spend five or ten minutes with one person trying to get them signed up, trying to explain what it was they needed to do,” Hamilton told the board in March. “The number of enforcement officers we have throughout the state really can’t handle the load of checking each one of these small neighborhood bars, so the enforcement is random, and it’s adding a burden to our small businesses in terms of accounting and it slows down the process.

“We’re just interested in protecting small business and making it easier for them to conduct business,” Hamilton said, “not add a lot of unnecessary cost to something that is really intermittently and selectively enforced. It’s not a good public policy to have something on the books where you can sort of take it or leave it.”

Another ABC-related bill sponsored by Hamilton and Rep. Frank Iler, of Brunswick County, sought to allow the Town of Leland to hold an election to authorize an ABC store within the town’s limits. Currently, the neighboring Town of Belville has two ABC stores that serve the area, but restrictions regarding the proximity of the towns have prevented Leland from opening its own store.

That bill, which Belville commissioners have opposed, was referred to the House elections committee in May.

Jonathan Spiers is a reporter for Port City Daily. He can be reached at (910) 772-6313 or jonathan.s@portcitydaily.com. On Twitter: @jrspiers

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