BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Belville, roughly a tenth of the size of Leland, has two ABC stores, including one just yards from the Leland municipal line. Leland, on the other hand, has none.
Leland thus receives zero dollars in ABC revenue. Last year, Belville stores recorded $3.5 million in sales between its two stores.
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The town of Belville increased its profit margin from 2016 to 2017 by 4 percent. Its 2018-2019 budget estimates next year’s sales will exceed $4 million. This summer, the town extended its ABC stores’ hours from closing at 8 p.m. to 9 p.m., expected to increase sales even further.
While Belville’s incorporation story is closely tied to the sale of alcohol, its younger neighbor, Leland, appears to have missed its shot.
“When we incorporated, you know how many people were in the town of Belville?” Belville’s Mayor, Mike Allen, asked. “10.”
Now a town of approximately 2,000 residents, according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau estimate, Belville first incorporated in 1977.
“What do you think the first store to have opened up?” Allen asked. “A convenience store that sold wine and beer.”
With the exception of the Oak Island ABC Board, formed through a 1999 legislative exception that merged Yaupon and Long Island Beach’s boards, Belville was the last local board in the county to establish itself.
With eight municipal boards and one county board, a 2008 evaluation by the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee found Brunswick County to have the most boards in the state. An “outdated” system, the evaluation suggested an overhaul — one that that largely hasn’t happened.
So why is Belville’s Waterford store just yards away from Leland’s town limits? It’s not to flaunt the town’s ABC store tantalizingly out of reach of Leland, it’s a matter of history: Before the 2000s, Belville outsized Leland. The town used to have corporate limits over a majority of the HWY 17 corridor. But now, town borders look quite different.
In 2001 and 2005, thousands of acres of Belville were de-annexed by the General Assembly. Mayor Allen said Belville’s board at the time wasn’t working well with developers, and ultimately, large portions of land were annexed into Leland’s limits.
“Belville woke up the next morning and three-fourths of their town was gone,” Allen said. “We were a lot bigger at one time.”
When Leland incorporated in 1989, it still had the chance to establish its own ABC Board. But that changed two years later.
In 1991, the state passed an act that prohibited new ABC stores in Brunswick County from being built within seven miles of the corporate limits of a municipality with an existing ABC store. In an already crowded county, Leland was effectively locked out.
Even after Leland was exempted from the seven-mile requirement in 2005, the town still had hurdles to overcome if it ever wanted the chance to have its own store.
Former state Representative Susi Hamilton introduced House Bill 311 in March 2015 that would authorize Leland to hold a city ABC store election; identifying yet another piece of legislative language that disqualifies Leland from having an ABC store: in order to have a liquor store, Leland would have to hold an election to create a board.
Current state statutes require that a municipality have at least 1,000 registered voters and be located in a county that doesn’t operate an ABC Board — Leland has the voters, but Brunswick County operates a board, which disqualifies the town. Bill 311 was intended to change that, specifically creating an exemption for Leland.
Representative Frank Iller, who still currently serves the district, signed on as a primary sponsor to the bill at the time. Iller’s legislative assistant, Carla Langdon, said the bill moved through the House and died in the Senate. Langdon said since the bill hasn’t since been re-introduced, it would ultimately be up to Representative Deb Butler to take up the issue.
Months after HB 311 was introduced, Leland asked its residents to call and email state legislators to put the town on “an even playing field” with neighboring towns, Belville and Navassa (Navassa does not have an ABC board or store).
“An ABC store will provide additional revenue for the Town, thus keeping property taxes lower, providing convenience to our restaurants that serve spirituous liquors, and putting the Town on an even playing field with the neighboring towns of Belville and Navassa,” a May 2015 town newsletter stated.
Because Leland is still suing Belville over H2GO’s contentious transfer, Butler said moving forward with similar legislation is unlikely.
“Honestly, I’m not really sure if we could get consensus on it until that is resolved,” she wrote in an email.
Though the town still wants a store of its own, Leland’s town manager David Hollis said the issue hasn’t been brought up recently. Regardless of if the town is desirous of an ABC store, Hollis said it’s ultimately up to state legislators to decide.
“However, this has not been a topic of discussion before the Council for some time now. The matter is entirely at the discretion of the State Legislature and we will take guidance from our local representatives as to when they determine it is appropriate to advance any further discussion or pursuit of the matter,” he said.
Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at firstname.lastname@example.org