The vote was 4-1, with county chairman Tim Lee alone in support of the sales.
County ordinances ban the sale of alcohol within 600 feet of a church. Pine Grove Baptist Church’s property line is located 237 feet from the Walmart on Barrett Parkway near the East-West Connector.
Walmart, which has been located at the site for six years, had sought a waiver from the ordinance, but the county’s licensing department denied the request in August. Walmart then appealed to the license review board, which sided with the world’s largest retailer last month. But final approval rests with the commissioners.
Northeast Cobb Commissioner JoAnn Birrell said approving the waiver would set a precedent.
“The laws are made for a reason,” Birrell said.
Northwest Commissioner Helen Goreham referenced the code governing the ban, noting it was “to protect and preserve schools and churches.”
“Apparently when this ordinance did go into effect with the stipulated 600 feet that was the purpose, and I do not believe that the purpose has changed through the course of the years in the course of development,” she said.
Walmart attorney Jarrod Loadholt said the code allowed commissioners to grant a waiver if it didn’t impact surrounding property values. Loadholt referenced a nearby RaceTrac that hasn’t diminished property values despite selling alcohol.
“Every party has seen their property value either increase, or in the church’s case remain the same throughout the time that RaceTrac was selling beer and wine as we are asking to do,” Loadholt said.
Lee said that was why he voted for Walmart.
“I didn’t feel the church’s purpose or value would be impacted negatively by Walmart having the permit to sell within the confines of their store,” Lee said. “It’s one percent of their sales. It’s not just a package store per se that’s within 300 feet. This is a retail, a super retail establishment of which alcohol is a part of a multitude of other stuff. Given the type of store they are … the church’s purpose and value — the two items that are clearly indicated in our ordinance — would not be diminished as a result of their ability to sell.”
Church member Betty Wallace has a different view.
“We see first-hand police frequently dealing with a law breaker on Walmart property,” Wallace said. “Our area is a dreaded stepchild of Cobb County which is known as South Cobb, and it is frequently referred to as a blighted, gang-infested portion of the county.
“It is our position that the sale of beer or wine there would absolutely make it more blighted as it is,” she said.
Church deacon Kenneth Carroll said he had acquired a list of 1,421 arrests that had occurred at the Walmart, including for disorderly conduct, robbery, vandalism, sexual assaults and illegal drug use.
“Serious crimes, not just shoplifting and thefts, concern us, plus the potential to use our buffer areas, which are hidden behind y’alls loading docks and our church property where the fences are cut and the foot traffic comes through our parking lot,” Carroll said. “We are in great suspicion that they will be coming out of the package store and setting up camp up there in the wooded area. We’ve already found lean-tos and all where vagrants or someone has been camping out back there, so it leaves us with a suspicion and a fear of what could go on once you add alcohol to the mix.”
Walmart spokesman Glen Wilkins said later that he was disappointed.
“This is an issue that we’ve been hearing from our customers for six years, as long as we’ve been in operation,” Wilkins said. “We believe that we can best serve our customers by providing a beer and wine option,” Wilkins said.
While Wilkins wouldn’t say what Walmart’s next step would be, the Rev. Bobby Wood, a member of Pine Grove Baptist Church who is its interim pastor, expects the fight isn’t over.
“They waited six years until this time so we don’t know exactly what they’re going to do, but we’re ready,” Wood said.
Lee said commissioners would likely review the code in January.
If it’s changed, Wood hopes commissioners make it stricter.
“I’d like to see it extended from 600 feet to 1,000 feet or something,” Wood said. “The main thing that we’re concerned about of course is the safety of our church folks that come to church, and the fact that we feel like it does have a lot of effect on the community. We’re just happy that the board saw it our way.”