ERWIN, Tenn. (WJHL) — A whitewater rafting business’s request for a beer permit should be handled based on rules and regulations, not personal opinion, an Erwin alderman said Monday before the town considered the request.

Even though Michael Baker’s opinion matched that of the town’s attorney, a few hours later the Board of Mayor and Alderman denied Blue Ridge Paddling’s request to open a 48-seat taproom at its headquarters.

The bid by brothers Mason and Brannon Schmidt, who opened their business with a nearly $2 million property investment at 1001 S. Industrial Drive last year, came closer Monday than it had the first time.

The Schmidts hope to add an area where rafting customers and others can have on-premises beer and growlers (32 or 64-ounce bottles filled from a tap) can be sold to go.

Drawings for the space show room for about 48 people — 30 at five tables and 18 at the bar.

Blue Ridge Paddling co-owner Mason Schmidt speaks at the Jan. 23 Erwin Board of Mayor and Alderman meeting. (WJHL photo)

The business is more than 900 feet from the nearest church, while Erwin’s ordinance prohibits beer sales only if a business is within 200 feet.

In the end, though, the two for, two against and one abstention vote was not enough despite the request’s apparent adherence to Erwin’s beer ordinance.

A Jan. 18 letter from attorney Tom Seeley suggested that the business’s request met normal applicable requirements, according to Erwin’s beer ordinance. Seeley concluded that “denial of a permit application that meets all the requirements of our Ordinance could result in litigation against the Town that would be difficult to defend successfully.”

The 2-2-1 vote Monday came after several citizens spoke out against the proposal and the town’s mayor, Glenn White, said he was “100% against alcohol.” Several BMA members also raised a separate issue of the Schmidt brothers apparently living at the business despite it not being zoned residential.

During that discussion, Mayor White, who voted against the request, spoke about the history of the property and wondered “who sells alcohol in an industrial site?”

White also referred to changes in Erwin.

“The fact is the fact, that we have outside people moving in, and they’re buying cheap property, and they’re changing our way of life,” White said. “A way of life that we grew up in. It’s your hometown now,” he said, speaking to one of the Schmidt brothers. “But it’s our hometown too.”

Erwin Mayor Glenn White speaks to an owner of Blue Ridge Paddling Monday. (WJHL photo)

White referred to several citizens who had spoken, saying like him they had lived in Erwin their whole lives. One, Tammy Wisecarver, said she was “standing up for my kids and my grandkids. I’m standing up for our community and what we’ve always stood for.”

Wisecarver said the BMA was not just voting on a beer permit but “about the atmosphere that comes along with this type of business…that has negative effects on communities.”

Baker said that wasn’t germane to the permit request, which he said was also zoning-related. The site’s M-1 zoning (manufacturing) doesn’t prohibit beer sales.

“If it was the intent of the neighborhood or the board to limit what went in there, the property should have been rezoned,” Baker said after the meeting. “Now we’re at this point where a very nice business has invested multiple millions of dollars into our county, in our city, and they’re just trying to further expand. And the town of Erwin should not be standing in the way of private development growth.”

For his part, White pointed to one of the Schmidts and said, “I told you, if I could stop it I would. I told you that in the recorder’s office — if I, by the signature of the mayor, could wipe alcohol out of the city of Erwin I’d do it.”

Baker — whose motion to approve the request earlier this month died for lack of a second — cited Seeley’s letter earlier Monday noting that Erwin could face legal jeopardy if it denied the request provided it met all ordinance requirements, which it appeared to do.

Baker had requested a legal opinion after the first meeting.

More from the attorney

Seeley wrote that he had reviewed “Tennessee statutes and case law pertaining to the denial of beer permits where the applicant is in compliance and meets all of the requirements of the local ordinance.”

Seeley wrote of finding just one case in which a court upheld a denial, adding that the case was “very different” from the Blue Ridge Paddling case.

Even when it upheld the one case, which involved a location that had previous instances of selling alcohol to minors, the appeals court said any denials could only be based on limited circumstances.

Michael Baker, an Erwin alderman who voted in favor of granting Blue Ridge Paddling a beer permit. (WJHL photo)

The court, Seeley wrote, was clear that “general objections to the sale of alcohol provide no support for the denial of an otherwise permissible license to sell beer, nor does the expression of fears, speculations, and apprehensions of those with fixed opinions regarding the subject matter.”

Because the Blue Ridge location doesn’t have a track record of issues, no evidence could show how or why issuing a permit “‘would interfere with public health, safety and morals’ to support a denial of the permit,” Seeley wrote.

“Instead, any justifications for denying Blue Ridge Paddling’s permit would be based only on ‘fears, speculations, and apprehensions’ which the Tennessee Supreme Court and Court of Appeals have specifically stated will not support a denial of an otherwise permissible license to sell beer.”

Baker said after the meeting he hopes the Schmidts will continue trying to gain approval for their permit.

“Not only would they generate additional sales tax which comes back to the city of Erwin, it would draw even more people to Unicoi County,” Baker said. “We have a beautiful river that they raft on (the Nolichucky), so the intent was for them to bring more people through the gorge and then end their day at the property located in the town of Erwin at their craft beer enterprise.

“Hopefully we can have that establishment up and running for our community and for tourists.”