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Applications for private clubs in unincorporated Pulaski County must now receive support from the Quorum Court, a new step, though what criteria the Quorum Court members will consider is not explicit.

A state law passed in April altered how private clubs are vetted in Arkansas. With a new private-club permit, establishments can stay open until 2 a.m. Holders of some older private-club permits in Arkansas can keep their businesses open until 5 a.m.

As of Thursday, 717 entities hold private-club permits in Arkansas. They include strip clubs, country clubs and restaurants.

Act 1112, championed by Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, requires anyone who wants to operate a private club to obtain approval from the governing body of the county or town where the club would be located.

That body must pass an ordinance of support. Only then can an application be reviewed by the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control agency and a permit potentially be issued, the law states.

Previously, people would go straight to the state agency, based in Little Rock.

Agency staff members would notify local leaders, like the mayor or county judge and police chief, that a private-club application had been filed, said Scott Hardin, spokesman for the Department of Finance and Administration. Those leaders, and the public, could give feedback, which was considered along with the application, Hardin said.

Decisions are made by Alcoholic Beverage Control Administration Division Director Mary Robin Casteel. Denials can be appealed to the full board.

While establishing that private-club applicants must gain the approval of the municipality, Act 1112 does not outline any criteria for city or county governing boards to consider when assessing an application.

The state agency also hasn't provided input because "we believe this is an independent decision of each local governing body," Hardin said in an email.

"Each decision is unique and dependent on numerous factors. ABC doesn't attempt to influence this decision in any way," he said.

Pulaski County attorney Adam Fogleman told Quorum Court members about the law at a Tuesday meeting, saying, it "doesn't really give us any guidance, whatsoever, as to what they want."

Fogleman told the Quorum Court that his office drafted an ordinance outlining what materials private-club candidates would need to show to operate in the 567 square miles of unincorporated county land, which has a population of 48,752, according to the 2010 census.

Under the ordinance, candidates would need a letter of intent to file for a permit and a copy of their beverage control division application.

They also must prove that they gave notice to nearby property owners and get a letter from the planning department.

When actually considering an application, Quorum Court members "can have any conversation they want about it," said Justin Blagg, director of Quorum Court services.

They "could say no, without any discussion ... or they could have a massive discussion about the merits," Blagg said.

Justice of the Peace Phil Stowers said he and his peers "have to have an objective, comprehensive plan in place" to review the applications.

"It can't be just, 'because I don't want this down the street from me,'" Stowers said. He added that he was confident that fair, unbiased criteria would be worked out between County Judge Barry Hyde's staff and justices of the peace.

If the Quorum Court denies an application, the applicant can either present his case again or challenge the decision in court, Fogleman said when reached by phone.

Lawsuits that stem from an applicant's denial are a "possibility," but it's "something that would have to be handled on a case-by-case basis," Fogleman said.

Blagg said he doesn't predict a rush of private clubs once the new procedures are in place. One man approached the county this year about the issue, but he didn't follow through, Blagg said.

In 2016, 44 private-club permits were issued statewide. This year to date there have been 34.

Five of those 78 licenses were issued in Pulaski County, which has 61 private clubs all together.

One registered private-club permit is drawing ire from a neighborhood group and opposition from the county judge.

Billy Pope of Bryant won a court battle in May transferring his private-club permit from his previous establishment to a new business, the planned Skyroom Gentleman's Club at 4634 W. Dixon Road. The older permit would allow the club to stay open until 5 a.m.

The address lies just outside Little Rock city limits, so under Act 1112, the Quorum Court would be the applicable governing board Pope would have to approach.

However, because the permit was transferred earlier this year, Skyroom will be "grandfathered in," meaning Pope does not have to seek an ordinance from the Quorum Court.

While the club is not in the city limits, it is within Little Rock's extraterritorial jurisdiction, meaning the city has control over zoning in the area.

So Hyde wrote a letter to Little Rock leaders urging the city to exercise certain zoning regulations that would prevent a strip club from operating in the area, which is near a neighborhood. A resolution, with a similar message, will be considered by the Quorum Court on Tuesday.

That same day, members will also vote on the new procedures to handle private-club applications.

Herbert Broadway, who owns La' Changes, a nightclub at 3315 W. Roosevelt Road, was granted a private-club permit years ago.

Broadway said getting an ordinance of approval from a municipal board doesn't seem like a drastic change in the process. Local authorities still gave input in the old system, he said.

"If the city of Little Rock says we don't want it, you're not going to get it, no way," Broadway said.

The law was crafted with Arkansas' 35 "dry" counties (where alcohol sales are prohibited) in mind, said Williams, the state senator who sponsored the legislation.

Under Act 1112, people who actually "shape the personality of a community" are involved in the process, he said.

Williams said that when he was the mayor of Cabot in Lonoke County, which prohibits alcohol sales, he would regularly lobby the beverage control board.

"I would go down and testify, and it would carry no weight, and it was very disrespectful," Williams said.

"Five or six bureaucrats should not be deciding the future of a dry county," he later said.

Jim Hudson, the county judge of Ashley County, said no business owners have approached that county yet about opening a private club this year.

Just one private club, the Prairie Country Club in Crossett, exists in that dry county that abuts the Louisiana border.

Because the county is rural and "not real wealthy," Hudson said he doesn't see that changing anytime soon.

"I don't see nothing wrong with going to a club," he said. "But this county is dry for a reason."

Metro on 12/17/2017

Print Headline: County JPs now get say on private clubs

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