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Damp Denton County: Where can you buy booze around these parts?

Pilot Point residents recently voted to make their city wetter by approving liquor sales for off-premises consumption. This means Amyn Valji can open up a liquor stop next to his Pilot Point convenience store, Jerry's Beverage City.

Valji has been selling beer and wine at his store since 2001, but noticed that his sales declined once the neighboring cities of Aubrey and Tioga started selling liquor out of package stores.

"Pilot Point is a bigger city sandwiched between them," Valji said. "People were making trips to Tioga and Aubrey to buy booze, and no one was coming here because they wouldn't want to make multiple trips."

So he started a petition in January to sell liquor for off-premises consumption within city limits. Valji needed roughly 350 signatures, but he got double that amount, he said. Once the measure got on the November ballot, it passed handily with 70 percent of voters in favor.

"It was kind of a quiet election," said Amanda Davenport, Pilot Point's director of economic development. "It has truly been a local effort and we want to use this to expand our local businesses."

Local alcohol propositions in Denton County are nothing new. In fact, there's only been one fiscal year — 2010 — in the past decade when an alcohol-related proposition hasn't been on the ballot somewhere in the county, according to Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission records.

But because of the way state alcohol laws work, Denton County as a whole is considered damp, which leads to a patchwork of local rules for alcohol sales. For instance, you can find alcohol at liquor stores, bars and restaurants in Denton and Aubrey, but in Ponder and Southlake, you can only buy beer and wine at the grocery store.

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Bars operating in areas that don't allow alcohol sales for on-premises consumption have a loophole: They call themselves "private clubs." This means that a customer must be a member of the club to buy a drink, a process that usually requires scanning an ID and asking someone to sign a slip of paper. 

The private club rule accommodated customers, but has its costly downsides for bar owners. That led bar owners in Denton to push for expanded liquor laws in 2014.  John Hatch, the co-founder of Texas Petition Solutions, worked with the Denton group to create a petition and run a successful campaign.

"The owners liked selling the alcohol, but it was cumbersome," he said. "Being a private club can cost restaurants and bars up to $20,000 in administrative costs. And if you're in a dry area and you're a private club, you can't have alcohol brought to you. You need to go get it yourself."

Right now, there are only three towns in Denton County that don't allow any form of alcohol sales: Dish (known by its previous name, Clark, in the eyes of the state commission), Double Oak and Shady Shores. But those local rules could become moot if there's ever an election to allow alcohol sales throughout Denton County.

Texas currently has 53 wet counties and seven dry counties, according to the state commission. Most of the dry counties are in the High Plains.  Most of the wet counties lie along the U.S.-Mexico border and in south-central Texas. 

Most North Texas counties are also damp like Denton County. Wilbarger County, about 150 miles to the northwest, is the nearest wet county. Throckmorton County, about 130 miles due west, is the nearest dry county. 

For a local option proposition to get on the ballot, a petition must secure signatures equal to 35 percent of the total number of voters who participated in the last gubernatorial election. For Denton County, that would mean a little more than 50,000 signatures.

While the majority of local option propositions have passed in Denton County, not all are successful. Out of the 32 local option elections held within the past 10 years, five have failed. Up until the successful proposition in November's election, six alcohol-related proposals had failed in Pilot Point since 1971.

Hatch believes a measure to make Denton County wet would ultimately pass. It's just a matter of getting the signatures, he said.

"It can be done," he said. "There's always going to be the typical 25 to 30 percent who oppose any alcohol sales. You could also have opposition from existing retailers who don't want the competition."

Valji said he also believes a countywide measure would pass, but is focused right now on bringing in more sales to his Pilot Point store. He's currently in the process of filing paperwork to get his liquor store up and running.

"I'm hoping that once we have the product, people will start coming to us first," he said. "It really doesn't make any sense for a city not to sell [alcohol]. We want people to spend their money locally."

CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862.