Tisbury seeks comments on beer, wine proposal
Ask someone on Main Street in Vineyard Haven about allowing beer and wine sales in restaurants, and stand back. Passions run high on both sides of the issue. Some people want to be able to buy a glass or bottle of wine with a meal, and others want to continue to bring their own.
For many, it is an emotional issue tied to fears about what impact alcohol will have on the character of their town and whether what starts as limited sales in restaurants will morph into package stores.
A beer and wine licensing public forum hosted by the Tisbury selectmen Feb. 6, from 5 to 6:30 pm in the Katharine Cornell Theatre, will give everyone a chance to have a say. "We want to discuss the nuts and bolts of the article and also give people the opportunity to speak their minds - keeping it fairly civil, hopefully," said selectman chairman Tristan Israel this week.
Town counsel David Doneski from the law firm of Kopelman and Paige will provide a brief overview of the legislative process by which Tisbury would be authorized by the state to issue licenses for beer and wine sales, and answer technical questions. After his presentation and a public comment session, the discussion will focus on rules and regulations that will be set by the town.
The selectmen recently drafted an article for the April town meeting to file a home rule petition with the state legislature to allow licensing for the sale of beer and wine. If voters approve the article, the home rule petition would have to be approved by the state legislature and then by Tisbury voters in a town election.
One of the advantages of the home rule petition is that it allows a town to fashion its own rules and regulations, with the approval of the legislature, which gives the selectmen the opportunity to involve the public in the details of licensing.
In order to provide a starting point for public discussion, the selectmen proposed a set of rules and regulations that included limiting the sale of beer and wine to patrons of restaurants (including those within inns and hotels) with a seating capacity of not less than 30 persons.
The beer and wine would have to be served at a dining table by a waiter or waitress and consumed with meals only. Furthermore, the selectmen stipulate, licenses for beer and wine sales will not be issued to a convenience or package store.
In addition to hearing public opinion about the pros and cons of beer and wine sales in the now dry town, the selectmen are open to suggestions about defining the parameters of beer and wine sales.
The proposed regulations make the issue fairly tame, as far as Paul Currier, owner of Café Moxie, is concerned. "I really do believe beer and wine sales would equate with the reopening of the [Capawock] theater in a way, a nice thing, but not a revolution, a little piece of the puzzle that makes the town a little more viable," he said yesterday.
Mr. Currier is one of several of the town's restaurant and inn owners who have spoken at past selectmen's meetings and to the beer and wine review committee in favor of beer and wine licenses. Among their reasons, they said they find it difficult to compete, because patrons head to Edgartown and Oak Bluffs restaurants instead, where alcoholic beverages are available. They also have to depend on food only for their profit margin, which makes it difficult to keep meal costs down as costs rise.
Jean-Marc Dupon, owner of Le Grenier Restaurant, said he has lost many customers, particularly summer visitors, who get up and leave when they find out they cannot buy wine to go with their meal. Because Tisbury's restaurants already allow patrons to bring their own libations, Mr. Dupon argues that the town is not really "dry" anyway.
"Whether you come to my establishment or others, everybody has a bottle of wine on the table," he said. Tisbury's "bring your own bottle" policy presents a Catch-22 situation for restaurant owners like him, he added. He cannot control how much people are drinking, and if they leave his establishment and have an accident, he bears responsibility. Yet, without a license to sell beer and wine, he cannot get liability insurance to cover it.
Once an establishment receives a license, patrons are not allowed to bring their own beer or wine onto the premises, according to the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission (ABCC). However, depending on local town laws, they may be allowed to bring their own into restaurants that do not have licenses.
The move to allow beer and wine sales dates back to December 2004, when Jeff Kristal, president of the Tisbury Business Association (TBA), submitted a draft warrant article to allow beer and wine in a limited capacity at restaurants and inns to the Tisbury selectmen. Although TBA members hoped it would be included on the annual town meeting warrant in April 2005, the selectmen rejected it.
In September 2005, Stephen Perlman, the new TBA president, approached the selectmen with a different proposal. While the TBA supported the limited sale of beer and wine by local Vineyard Haven restaurants, Mr. Perlman suggested the selectmen first appoint a committee to study the potential impact of alcohol sales on the town before considering a warrant article.
In January 2006, the selectmen interviewed and appointed eight community volunteers to a beer and wine review committee. Former selectman chairman Raymond LePorte charged them with the task of "determining whether or not any serving of any kind of alcohol is appropriate in Tisbury."
The committee spent many hours in meetings over several months, during which time they interviewed business owners, educators, Tisbury town department heads, and community members.
They also researched beer and wine rules and regulations, and talked to leaders in other Massachusetts towns that had recently changed from "dry" to "wet." Seeking some quantifiable data, the committee circulated both a business survey and a taxpayer survey, although the latter proved too confusing to generate measurable results.
Last September, the beer and wine review committee presented an executive summary to the selectmen in which they concluded that "...there would be little or no impact on the town, its taxpayers, or the overall business community if beer and wine were introduced in restaurants." However, the committee added, they had only assessed the impact of introducing beer and wine, and purposely had not considered the opinions of voters, business owners, or taxpayers.
In conclusion, the committee recommended if the selectmen were interested in taking further steps towards beer and wine sales, they should pursue the option to petition under the Home Rule Amendment.
TBA president pro tem Jon Nelson, also president of Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, said that after much discussion last fall, the TBA board and 22 members voted unanimously in favor of having the beer and wine issue put on the town ballot. "We don't want it decided at town meeting," he said. "We want it on the ballot to be voted on."
Following the TBA's vote, in November Peter Cronig, owner of Cronig's Real Estate, presented a petition to the selectmen as a private citizen, rather than as a TBA representative. However, in response to Mr. Cronig, Mr. Israel said he felt it was the selectmen's job to draft a warrant article that would be agreeable to as many people as possible.
"I'm a firm believer in the democratic process," selectman Denys Wortman said at that time. "I want the opportunity out there for people to act in a fair way." Echoing the TBA's sentiments, Mr. Wortman added that he thought the issue should be voted on by as many voters as possible, preferably not at town meeting.
The selectmen followed up by drafting and reviewing an article a few weeks ago, and then scheduling next week's public hearing. Throughout their discussions about beer and wine sales, the Tisbury selectmen maintained their willingness to put personal feelings about the issue aside and to put the question to voters.