Essay: Beer and wine questions in West Tisbury leave voters in a muddle

I have been asked to write a brief piece about the West Tisbury beer and wine question, which is article 41 on the April 10 town meeting warrant and will appear on the ballot two days later. While I currently serve as a member of several town boards, I am writing as a private citizen and not as a town official.

In the spring of 2011, and by petition, several restaurant owners in West Tisbury asked the town meeting to vote on allowing the town to issue licenses to sell beer and wine to restaurants of a certain size. Later an amendment to issue one-day licenses to other applicants was added by the selectmen. With a minimum of information, maximum voter confusion, and late in the evening, the article was narrowly passed by the few remaining voters.

In order to take effect, it requires a follow-up ballot question this year. The selectmen must draft and have approved rules, regulations, and fees regulating such licenses. The ballot question is on April 12.

Unfortunately, we do not yet have a final draft of the rules, regulations and fees, nor do we have firm and detailed information on the issuance of one-day event licenses (who may apply, for what sort of events, along with all the applicable conditions).

Many residents have expressed concern at voting for such a major change in our rural and historically dry town, while others are concerned that the practice of allowing nonprofits to serve alcoholic beverages at fundraisers will be further compromised, or ended. Others are confused by the process. During the year since the last town meeting, we were promised a series of meetings and forums to solicit comment from town residents, to present information, and to review and provide the finished draft of rules, regulations and fees, so that residents could be informed and vote in a thoughtful fashion.

Unfortunately that has not happened. There has only been one public forum, which resulted in more questions than answers, and the selectmen are still working on the draft of the rules and fees. Another discussion was scheduled during the normal selectmen’s meeting on April 4, but this would leave no time before the vote on April 12 for any thoughtful exchange of opinions, or revisions.

For those voters who are undecided, the implications of passing the ballot question are unclear, to say the least. We are told that this would allow licenses to be issued to restaurants of a certain size (50 seats) and for one-day events. Currently, three restaurants in town would qualify, although one does not serve dinner and the other two — both located in residential districts — are closed for all or part of the winter. We are told that no other qualified restaurants could open, but that is not true. Zoning could change and/or several buildings in the business district could be converted to restaurant use. Unfortunately, the information about who may apply for the one-day event licenses and how this affects the nonprofits is muddled. To say that many are bewildered is an understatement.

Several residents have petitioned to have article number 41 on this year’s town meeting warrant. This gives those people who are planning to vote no on the ballot question on April 12 a way to keep the conversation about the one-day licenses ongoing. It seems that many town residents do not have a problem with continuing the practice of the nonprofits serving alcoholic beverages at fundraising events, and article 41 allows residents another option. If passed it would provide some breathing room, while the process of educating the public, soliciting public opinion, seeking legislative approval and drafting rules, regulations and fees could be completed in a reasonable fashion. We would know, when voting on the necessary confirmatory ballot question in 2013 what we were actually voting, and if it accomplishes the desired goals.

Virginia Crowell Jones is a long-time member of the West Tisbury planning board. She is now its chairman.