West Tisbury selectmen enjoy no happy hour at beer, wine forum

Lynn Christoffers

West Tisbury selectmen heard mostly from critics at a November 2 public forum called to discuss draft regulations in anticipation of a vote on whether the town should allow beer and wine to be sold in restaurants for the first time in over 100 years.

Many of the comments at last Wednesday’s meeting echoed arguments uncorked at the annual town meeting last April, when voters approved an article to file a home rule petition with the state legislature to make West Tisbury a wet town.

On October 14, Gov. Deval Patrick signed legislation authorizing the town to place the beer and wine question on the ballot of the town election in April.

If approved, selectmen would be authorized to issue licenses for the sale of beer and wine to restaurants with 50 seats or more, which currently applies to only State Road Restaurant, Lambert’s Cove Inn, and the Plane View at the airport. Selectmen would also be authorized to issue one-day licenses for the sale of beer and wine at fund-raising events.

The beer and wine article was placed on the last April’s annual town meeting warrant by petition and was by far the most heavily debated and dissected of that evening. An amendment to allow selectmen to issue one-day liquor licenses for fundraising events in town added another layer to the issue.

The issue of alcohol service at fundraisers appeared last March. In response to a question, town lawyer Ron Rappaport advised selectmen that the town could not legally allow alcohol to be served at fundraisers and events because the town does not allow the sale of alcohol, and so it cannot issue a permit for an event where alcohol will be served when money will change hands.

Many voters supported allowing beer and wine to be served at fundraisers, but not in restaurants. Some residents called for the two to be separated, and an amendment was proposed to scrap the language relating to restaurants but keep the language for fundraisers.

That amendment failed, and in the end voters easily passed the amended motion allowing beer and wine to be served at both restaurants and fundraisers.

Selectmen held the November 2 forum to discuss draft regulations they said are modeled after those approved in Tisbury and Aquinnah. Both towns approved alcohol service last year.

Selectmen heard mostly from critics of beer and wine service, including those who felt the two distinct issues of beer and wine at restaurants and fundraisers were unfairly combined at town meeting.

“I really don’t understand why two such different issues are joined,” said David Gorenberg, a physician who raised similar concerns at town meeting. “The town voted it because it was inappropriately joined at the time.”

“That is your opinion. It was joined and it was voted,” answered selectman Cynthia Mitchell. “The only way to undo that now is at the ballot box.”

Selectmen conceded they didn’t have draft regulations, and instead used the beer and wine licensing policies from Aquinnah as what they called a “template.”

Maria McFarland, the town’s conservation commission administrator, said selectmen were sending the wrong message by holding a hearing on draft regulations before townspeople formally voted to adopt beer and wine sales.

“My concerns about this whole discussion, and how it is formatted, is that people who don’t come to this meeting and read about it in the paper will get the perception that the town is already on track to approve this,” she said. “I’m concerned the selectmen are giving townspeople the perception that this is a done deal.”

Ms. Mitchell noted the beer and wine article was placed on the town meeting warrant by petition, and selectmen were only following a process set in motion when voters approved the article.

“The vote at the town meeting set us on a course that we are following. And if something doesn’t happen to change that course, it will pass,” she said.

Virginia Jones disputed a point made at town meeting that the change would only allow three restaurants in town to serve beer and wine. Ms. Jones said a new restaurant could open up that meets the criteria to serve beer and wine.

“More restaurants certainly could open up,” she said. “Never say never.”

Ms. Jones also questioned the manner in which the article was approved at town meeting.

“This was discussed at town meeting at something like 10:30 pm when virtually two-thirds of the voters had left … it’s not like it was a major wave of enthusiasm and approval for a very major change in our town,” she said.

“I do not share your recollection of town meeting,” selectman Richard Knabel answered. “It seems to me that people waited for that particular article to come up, and it was after the article was discussed and voted on that a large number of people got up and left.”

Chairman Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter said it shouldn’t matter when the article came on the floor of town meeting.

“I don’t think it matters if it was first or last. It passed. It was amended, debated, and it passed. We are here as a result of that vote. We can keep talking about it, but it’s not going away,” Mr. Manter said.

Prudy Burt, a landscaper and member of the town conservation commission, said she thought the issue still hasn’t been fully vetted. “I think this is the first chance most of us have had to have a civic discussion about this, so you are going to hear some repetition,” she said.

Ms. Burt noted the section in the Aquinnah regulations that charged only $300 for beer and wine licenses.

“Why is the license fee so tiny?” she said. “This is all about enabling three businesses to make more money. It’s not a public benefit to the community. We are not getting anything out of this.

“If I had my druthers I wouldn’t want to see us go to a wet town. But I certainly would want to see that number be a lot higher and let us get some benefit,” Ms. Burt added.

Ms. Mitchell said there would be at least one more public forum to review the regulations, answer questions and gather feedback.

“This is exactly the purpose of this forum, to give people a chance to say the things they didn’t get to say at town meeting, and possibly sway their peers if they are against this,” she said.