Senate Bill 155, the culmination of months of work, is catch-all legislation reforming more than a dozen alcoholic beverage control (ABC) laws. The final bill combined three different pieces of legislation, including House Bill 500, focusing on craft breweries, and House Bill 480, a tax compliance bill aimed at helping craft brewers.
But the main focus ever since the bill was proposed has been on a provision that enables local governments to pass their own resolutions, if they so choose, allowing restaurants, bars, hotels, and retail outlets (such as grocery stores) to begin selling their normal offerings of alcohol products (beer, wine and/or cocktails) beginning at 10 a.m. on Sunday mornings instead of at 12 noon.
The “brunch bill,” as it is often called, represents the latest reform to the state’s long-standing ban on Sunday morning alcohol sales. The legislation’s supporters hope to see a significant bump in summer sales (and tax revenues) as a result.
“Many people don’t understand is why it is hard to enact laws related to alcoholic beverages,” commented Representative Chuck McGrady, the legislation’s lead advocate in the House. “In the not-so recent past, consumption of alcoholic beverages was a controversial issue.”
The limitation on Sunday sales was originally enacted in deference to morning church-goers as part of what are known as “blue laws” — referring to the colored paper they were once printed on — which were put in place to acknowledge that Sunday should be set aside for worship. Blue laws go back to the time before the founding of our republic.
In 1716, the colonial assembly of North Carolina first adopted the “Sabbath Observance Act,” which prohibited profanity, prostitution, and other sketchy activities on Sunday, writes NCpedia author Harry McKown. These laws took a variety of forms over the centuries, with both local and state versions, including a 1741 act that called for “suppressing profanities, immorality, and diverse other vicious and enormous sins.”
More recently, North Carolina’s “Sunday Closing Laws” were instituted in 1961 to restrict even general commerce on the Christian holy day. It was later overruled by the state Supreme Court as being too vague and inconsistent.
Other laws have been instituted over the years restricting Sunday alcohol sales. Originally, the prohibition extended to the entire day; in 1981, a law was passed to allow Sunday alcohol sales to start at 1 p.m.; in 1993, sales were permitted to start at 12 noon. With passage of this year’s reforms, unless local governments vote to change the time to 10 a.m., alcohol still cannot be purchased between 2 a.m. and noon. North Carolina’s ABC stores will continue to remain closed on Sundays.
With the Senate Bill 155 now law, North Carolina joins 47 other states that allow some form of Sunday morning alcohol sales.
The bill was signed into law on Friday, June 30, and went into effect immediately as a local “opt-in” law, shifting the responsibility to city and county governments which must now pass local resolutions authorizing Sunday morning sales in their communities.
A local resolution of this nature would constitute what’s called a “police power ordinance,” and local governments can pass such resolutions without holding public hearings (which are permitted but not required). Under General Statute 160A-191, cities are required to hold public hearings only when passing ordinances that restrict business activities on Sunday, but not for ordinances that expand them — which the “Brunch Bill” clearly does.
Regarding the term “police power,” Trey Allen of the UNC School of Government writes, “the term stands for the broad authority the General Assembly has delegated to cities and counties in G.S. 160A-174 and G.S. 153A-121, respectively, to enact ordinances governing ‘acts, omissions, or conditions detrimental to the health, safety, or welfare of [their] citizens and the peace and dignity of [their jurisdictions].’ (It also includes the authority to define and abate nuisances.) The police power underlies ordinances involving matters as diverse as loud noises, dangerous animals, door-to-door solicitations, overgrown vegetation, and business regulation.”
When a county’s governing board passes this sort of ordinance, it does not apply to any incorporated municipality located in that county; the rule, contained in G.S. 153A-122(a), is that a county ordinance can only apply to unincorporated areas of the county. Incorporated municipalities (towns, villages and cities) must pass their own local resolutions authorizing Sunday morning alcohol sales. (For expert guidance on how cities and counties can adopt a local brunch bill ordinance, see “Sunday Brunch Ordinances” by Norma Houston of UNC School of Government.)
Many of North Carolina’s municipalities have already shown an interest in passing local “brunch bills” and the new law has sparked a Twitter advocacy campaign with the hashtag #FreeTheMimosa.
- Asheville. The Asheville City Council has a brunch provision on its July 25 meeting agenda;
- Atlantic Beach. The coastal city of Atlantic Beach has announced the passage of their brunch bill resolution on July 3;
- Carrboro. The City of Carrboro wasted no time in in becoming the first to adopt a brunch bill resolution. “The ink was barely dry after the governor signed the bill into law before the Carrboro Board of Aldermen called a special meeting” voting unanimously on July 3 to allow alcohol sales starting at 10 am. on Sundays, reports Spectrum News. “There was very little discussion. We were all really excited when it became evident that we would be able to pass this ordinance,” board member Jacquelyn Gist told WRAL;
- Chapel Hill. The City of Chapel Hill has indicated an interest;
- Charlotte. The City of Charlotte could vote a resolution at their July 24 meeting following committee review of the proposal;
- Durham. The City of Durham has indicated an interest;
- Fayetteville. Fayetteville has put a measure on its August 3 agenda and Mayor Nat Robertson says he hopes to have it legal there by September 1. “It’s common sense to me,” Robertson said.
- Guilford County. In Guilford County, Republican Commissioner Justin Conrad said that he would support the board in allowing earlier Sunday sales. “I work in the tourism and hospitality industry and understand the benefits of this bill for restaurateurs, as well as increased tax revenue for our county,” Conrad told the High Point Enterprise. “With the third-largest airport in North Carolina with a large commuter presence, I think it would make sense for Guilford County to allow these sales.” Fellow Commissioner Hank Henning of High Point agreed saying, “I would vote to opt in. The government needs to get out of it altogether, in my opinion. It’s something you are legally allowed to do with the age requirements.”
- Hendersonville. BlueRidgeNow reports that the Hendersonville City Council approved a brunch bill resolution by a 4-1 vote during its July 6 meeting, where the item was quickly added to the agenda. Their resolution became effective immediately;
- Hillsborough. The City of Hillsborough will consider adopting a resolution at their July 20 public hearing;
- Huntersville. The City of Huntersville has indicated an interest;
- Mecklenburg County. The Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners plan to take a vote on a proposed resolution Tuesday, July 11. The county resolution only applies to the unincorporated areas of the county, so cities within the county (including Charlotte) would have to pass their own brunch bill resolutions (see above);
- Raleigh. On June 30, News & Observer reporter Andy Specht Tweeted about Raleigh’s interest in getting a head start: “I asked Mayor Nancy McFarlane when the Raleigh City Council might vote to allow early Sunday alcohol sales and she said, ‘As soon as we can!!’” How soon is now? Raleigh’s city council voted 7 to 1 on Wednesday, July 5, to allow Sunday morning alcohol sales, CBS North Carolina reported. So far, many of the state capital’s restaurants are getting on board.
- Surf City. The coastal town of Surf City announced the passage of its brunch bill resolution on July 5.
Some municipalities are not so enthusiastic, however. Nags Head commissioners took up a brunch bill proposal at their July 5 meeting and voted it down with a 2-3 vote, the Outer Banks Voice reports. Instead, the board opted to hold a public hearing at their August 2 meeting before taking a final vote on the matter.
Craft brewers, Home Brewers, and Distillers
Some other provisions in the 17-page ABC Omnibus Bill loosens regulations for craft brewers, home brewers, and distillers:
- Home brewers of wine are no longer restricted to having their products be a “native” wine that has its alcohol content produced by natural fermentation;
- Beer brewers can now sell “crowlers” — 32-ounce cans filled with fresh craft beer from the source and sealed on-site (can + growler = crowler);
- Beer taprooms have the option to sell liquor and mixed drinks;
- Farmer’s markets are added to the list of places where a winery may offer free tastings and sell its wine by the glass or in closed containers;
- Distilleries can give free tastings at trade shows, festivals, and other events; and
- Distilleries can sell up to five bottles of spirituous liquor per year at the distillery to consumers who takes a tour of the distillery. In 2015, Gov. Pat McCrory signed House Bill 909 into law which allowed distilleries to sell each customer one bottle per year.
North Carolina already has 45 operating distilleries and 22 more in the pipe, according to The North Carolina Distillers Association, which has spent years asking the state legislature to reform the Prohibition-era regulations on distilleries.
Some other provisions of SB155, according to the Asheville Citizen-Times, that are now state law:
- Even in dry counties, farms that produce barley and other grains, hops, and fruit can use their own products to brew beer for on- or off-premise consumption with the proper permitting and local approval;
- Retail businesses can now sell wine for on-premise consumption with proper permitting, even if they don’t serve food;
- Breweries are no longer limited to selling their own products, and may now obtain permitting to serve liquor;
- Brewers can now legally offer tastings of beer in their breweries, as well as give out free samples on brewery tours. This was common practice before, but now it’s expressly laid out as legal; and
- Homebrew competitions are now expressly legal.