Some Hilton Head Island liquor store owners are in bad spirits over proposed changes to town code, which they say could bring more alcohol retailers to the island.
The changes would eliminate a rule that prevents liquor stores from being built within 500 feet of a property that already has a liquor store. That rule has limited the number of liquor stores on the island, owners and town officials say.
An influx of liquor stores might cheapen the island aesthetic, some liquor store owners argue. They also worry the changes could invite bigger companies that sell alcohol for lower prices, squeezing out local shops.
"All these years we've operated with this rule, and now they're yanking the rug out from under us," said Philip Johnson, who owns Park Plaza Liquor and Fine Wines.
The issue has divided town officials, who seek to create opportunities for new businesses without harming existing ones.
Town Councilman George Williams said he understands the current rules curb competition, but a change would cheat owners who built their businesses under the current guidelines.
"Every one of these businesses -- their business models, leases, investments into their facilities -- is based on rules and regulations we have today," Williams said.
He also worried looser restrictions would let larger companies swoop in and undercut the island's 13 stores, many of which are small businesses.
Councilman Lee Edwards disagreed.
At a July 8 council meeting, he said other businesses, like hotels, aren't afforded what amounts to protection from competition.
"It's not fair for us to make rules for who is successful and not successful," said Edwards, who owns The Greenery landscaping company. "If we could change (the rules) to separate landscape companies so no more would come to the island, I would love that."
Attempts Wednesday to reach Edwards were unsuccessful.
The liquor-store changes are part of a sweeping revision to town code intended to encourage redevelopment. Town officials say the proposed code allows for a broader range of land uses and reduces building restrictions.
Hilton Head architect Tom Crews, who leads the Land Management Ordinance Rewrite Committee that wrote the proposed code, said the original rule was created to prevent liquor stores from overrunning the island.
"Like a number of things in the original ordinance, it was out of fear of things we don't want to become," he said. "We have learned we haven't become that and are unlikely to go that way."
One goal of the rewritten code is "not to let zoning rules regulate the marketplace."
He said it's difficult for liquor stores to open because the town measures from the property line of an existing store to the property line of the proposed store. That means two such businesses couldn't be in the same shopping center.
Shopping centers generally are one large property, so that way of measuring also can prevent liquor stores from opening in a neighboring plaza, he said.
Along with liquor stores, the proposed code would eliminate 500-foot separation rules between bars, nightclubs and tattoo parlors. Strip clubs and other adult-entertainment venues would still need to be at least 750 feet from one another, according to a draft of the code.
All of these businesses must be at least 200 feet from churches and schools, according to town documents.
Crews and the rewrite committee will discuss the liquor-store rule change and other parts of the proposed code at 8:30 a.m. Thursday at the Hilton Head Public Service District community room at 21 Oak Park Drive.
From there, the proposed code heads to Town Council on Sept. 2 for an initial vote, according to senior town planner Teri Lewis.
Bob Prust, who owns A Wine and Spirit Shop in Shelter Cove Plaza, said he hopes the council decides to keep things the same.
"How would this affect people who have spent their life savings (on a liquor store) only to find out someone can open one up next door?"
Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.