SALT LAKE CITY – Residents in a small northern Utah community may soon be able to buy beer within city limits, if residents vote to lift a long-standing ban on the sale of alcohol in a Tuesday election.
Hyde Park, population 4,000, is among a handful of dry cities left in a state known for its teetotaling ways. If voters pass the ordinance, it would open the door for the city's only convenience store to sell beer with an alcohol by weight of 3.2 percent, the maximum allowed in Utah in non-state-run liquor stores.
Residents would still have to drive a few miles south to get liquor and heavier beer at the nearest state-run liquor store in Logan. The bedroom community is just outside Logan, about 14 miles from the Idaho state line.
The proposal has divided the conservative, mostly Mormon town, with some city council members arguing that the town shouldn't allow the sale of any "mind-altering" substances. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches its members to abstain from alcohol, a belief that has led to the state having famously strict liquor laws.
The idea of lifting the ban is not new, having been discussed but discarded several times in the past. It came up again late last year when the Maverik convenience store asked the council to consider lifting the ban. After much discussion, the council voted 3-2 to lift the ban.
A group of Hyde Park residents stepped in, gathering the 500 signatures needed to send the issue to a vote.
Mark Hurd, one of the councilmen who opposed lifting the ban, said the minuscule increase in sales tax revenue would be outweighed by the detrimental impacts on the members of the community. He said he morally objects to the consumption of any "mind-altering substance," reported the Herald Journal of Logan. The newspaper was first to report the alcohol sales question (http://bit.ly/1bv3u1U).
Hurd, a father of three, told The Associated Press that he believes kids are more prone to drinking alcohol the more they are exposed to it.
Many residents agree with Hurd, including Dan Rust.
"Hyde Park hasn't needed the sale of alcohol yet, and I don't believe for a nanosecond that we need alcohol ... for any excuse or reason," Rust told the Herald Journal.
Backers say lifting the ban won't corrupt the city's children and will bring in more sale tax revenue and maybe lure a grocery store in the future.
"It's not like there's not beer accessible just a mile farther down the road," said Carol K. Johnson, a member of the Hyde Park city council. "I don't believe it is a moral issue. People should have the freedom to buy what they want to buy, where they want to buy it."
Councilman Brent Kelly sits in the middle. He voted against lifting the ban at the council meeting because he felt he was representing the will of the conservative community. But he said ahead of Tuesday's election that he'll accept whatever the voters decide. He said the sales tax revenue would be marginal at best from beer sales, adding that the city's population would have double or triple to lure a grocery store.
"This is not a big deal," Kelly said. "If it passes, it's not going to corrupt the town."
Maverik, the convenience store, is respectful of the town's culture and would built a beer vault in the back corner of the store, said Danielle Mattiussi, executive regional director of operations.
"It wouldn't be something that children would be walking by frequently," said Mattiussi, adding that selling beer would increase store sales by an estimated 24 percent.
Utah, Colorado and Oklahoma are among a handful of states that only allow beer with a 3.2 percent alcohol by weight to be sold in grocery stores. Many low-calorie beers come in naturally at 3.2 percent or lower after brewing, said Jim Olsen, president of the Utah Beer Wholesaler Association. If they come in higher, the breweries put them through more processing to lower the percentage.
The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control doesn't track how many dry towns there are in Utah, because the agency only regulates hard alcohol and heavy beer. But Olsen estimates there are only about a five or six dry towns left in Utah -- down from about 12 two decades ago.
The dwindling number of dry towns doesn't mean Utah is shedding its reputation of being tight on liquor, said Olsen, who points that the state still forbids restaurants from pouring alcohol in front of customers in a rule known as the "Zion Curtain."
"In some areas, they give a little bit," Olsen said. "In other areas, they tighten it."