In a straw poll, an overwhelming majority of the standing room only crowd at a meeting Tuesday of the Chilmark selectmen to discuss a proposal to allow the sale of beer and wine in restaurants said they are opposed to the idea.
Only two of the more than 40 people who attended raised their hands in favor. Chairman Warren Doty asked for the vote, which had no legal significance, to give selectmen an idea of where residents stand on the issue.
Chilmark selectmen held the public discussion in response to a letter from Robert and Sarah Nixon, owners of the Home Port Restaurant, the Beach Plum Inn and Restaurant and the Menemsha Inn and Cottages requesting that the town explore the Home Rule option that would allow the town to issue liquor licenses.
“We are looking to enhance the Home Port Restaurant and the Beach Plum Inn and Restaurant by providing our guests the ability to purchase alcohol directly from the restaurants,” the Nixons said in their letter.
Three Island towns have recently allowed beer and wine sales in restaurants — Aquinnah in 2008, Tisbury in 2010, and West Tisbury last year. Chilmark is one of only eight dry towns in the state.
Only Mr. Nixon and Paul Iantosca, a Chilmark summer resident, spoke in favor of the proposal. “I feel it is time for Chilmark to catch up to the other towns,” Mr. Iantosca said. “I think every town will eventually allow their restaurants to sell beer and wine. We should get with it and allow our restaurants to make a little extra margin to help them with their businesses and it would be a great convenience for their patrons.”
Mr. Nixon said, “What has changed is the other towns and I think we should catch up.”
Chilmark police chief Brian Cioffi assured people concerned about drinking on the beach that if the town allowed sales of alcohol there would be no change to the open container law. “People would still be allowed to have an open container in Menemsha,” he said. However, diners would not be able to bring their own liquor to restaurants and would not be able to leave restaurants with open containers.
Mr. Cioffi said he talked to police chiefs in other Island towns and they said they have not had more calls after the implementation of restaurant beer and wine sales. Mr. Cioffi said that other than assisting the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, which would be responsible for inspections, he did not expect a change would impact his department.
Many of those who spoke in opposition said they were concerned that allowing the sale of beer and wine would negatively affect the character of the town. But the harshest criticism of the night was personal and directed at the Nixons.
Merrily and Frank Fenner, a former Chilmark selectman, co-owners of the Galley, located across the street from the Home Port, criticized the Nixons in a lengthy letter that Ms. Fenner read. “Since buying the Home Port we believe the Nixons have negatively impacted Menemsha,” they said.
The Fenners said the Nixons had failed to respect the town’s goals of saving the Home Port, which included keeping the restaurant’s daily hours the same to maintain public parking during the day, and to help ease the traffic congestion and increase public access to the channel into Menemsha Pond. They said that the Nixons had limited the public’s access to parking, doubled their hours of operation, and increased their seating capacity.
“If you want to say we are bringing these issues up because we are upset with you as competition, it’s true,” the Fenners said. “But it is also true that we welcome healthy competition.”
“We want to keep Menemsha as it is, different from the other towns, rural charming and exclusive,” Ms. Fenner read in closing. “Consider us firmly against the town allowing beer and wine.” The crowd erupted in applause. “I think it would be good if we had this discussion without applause,” Mr. Doty said. “The issue is what do we want as a town? Do we want our restaurants to serve beer and wine or do we want to keep it the way it is?” He said the selectmen have not taken a position on the issue and want to hear what townspeople think.
A half a dozen speakers echoed the Fenners’ fear that allowing liquor sales would change the character of Menemsha. Several asked what benefit to the town would come from a change. Others spoke to the fear of traffic issues with more people driving under the influence.
“This is not an issue about consumption,” Mr. Nixon said by way of response to their concerns. “People bring in beer and wine and hard liquor to the restaurants. It is about allowing the sale in the restaurants. I think it would be good to have more control.
“In response to the Fenners’ letter, just for the record, I would like to say that the boat access — I am totally standing by our commitment when the town wants to move ahead on that. We are not standing in the way of that in any way. We are not stopping people from parking. Lunch is our right to have and we are encouraging people to park further away.”
In a follow-up call to the Times on Wednesday Mr. Nixon said he was shocked by the Fenner letter. “I was taken aback by the strange grievances, the wild accusations that are baseless,” he said. “I sent them an email this morning saying I wish you had talked to me. Can we still talk?”
He added, “I think this is just the beginning of a process. It is not about the consumption of alcohol but about whether we can sell it or do people buy it in the other towns and have it taxied over here?”