Chilmarkers express strong opposition to beer and wine proposal

Chilmark selectmen discussed the town's "dry" status. Form left, Bill Rossi, Jonathan Mayhew, Warren Doty and executive secretary Tim Carroll. — Photo by Edie Prescott

On a beautiful September evening, Chilmark selectmen got an earful from town residents Tuesday about why the town should not allow restaurants to sell beer and wine.

Chilmark is the only dry town on Martha’s Vineyard, and one of only eight in Massachusetts. Chilmark Selectman Jonathan Mayhew read aloud a petition signed by 14 residents received from Swordfish Enterprises Inc. on behalf of the Home Port and Beach Plum restaurants, asking selectmen to add an article to the Oct. 26 special town meeting warrant to allow beer and wine to be served in town.

“This petition does not suggest that you either support or do not support the issue of a license, it is only to direct the selectmen to begin the exploration of options regarding the town issue of beer and wine licenses,” read Mr. Mayhew.

Josh Aronie, chef at the Home Port Restaurant in Menemsha and operator of a wintertime food truck, was the sole attendee in favor of an alcohol license. Robert and Sarah Nixon, seasonal Chilmark residents from Washington, D.C., owners of both restaurants, did not attend the meeting.

Mr. Aronie reminded selectmen of their comments at a meeting on August 27, 2013, when selectman Warren Doty said that this topic would be brought to a ballot, as well as put forth at town meeting, if it were pursued.

“I know that there is obviously opposition, and there is generally more opposition than support in forums like this, but we’re asking that we go to a town meeting and give us the opportunity to find a constituency that might support it and put it to a vote,” Mr. Aronie said.

Chairman Bill Rossi quickly added that the issue would be best served at annual town meeting and not special town meeting, as the former provides a larger representation from the town.

“Whenever you’re dealing with something that’s really important, you really want to have as many people there as possible,” Mr. Mayhew said.

Mr. Doty said that the other towns on Martha’s Vineyard have followed this process, going to town meeting first and then to the ballot box. “Most of the towns have gone by special act to the legislature,” executive secretary Tim Carroll corrected. “So after petition there is a vote at town meeting and the legislature acts on it.”

Longtime town meeting moderator Everett Poole weighed in on the topic. “At this stage of the game you take it under advisement, and it certainly should not be brought up at the special town meeting,” he said.

“It’s too big of an issue,” said Mr. Rossi.

Mr. Doty recalled that the last time this issue was discussed, the vast majority of residents wanted things to stay as they are.

“Don’t you have to ask yourself what’s changed in the past two years to have it come back before the town?” Chilmark building inspector Lenny Jason asked.

Mr. Rossi told Mr. Aronie that he had to “clean up” his proposal, as it is requesting a “liquor license” and not specifically “beer and wine,” for example. Mr. Poole pointed out that Aquinnah only has a beer and wine license.

Selectmen agreed not to add the question to the special town meeting warrant.

‘Improve their menu’

Currently, diners are free to bring beer or wine to any of the town’s food establishments, which run the gamut from indoor fine dining to outdoor crate seating. The proposal elicited numerous comments about the character of the town.

“As someone who has been here for the past decade or so, I just can’t see how this can be any benefit to the town,” said resident Carlton Crocker. “It will benefit certain people and certain businesses, but I think the idea of us being the wettest little dry town — in the state really — is a nice little thing to go by. If you introduce these regulations, you will take away part of the overall charm of what this place has been forever.”

“Amen,” came from the crowd.

Mr. Crocker said he did not want the town to become “like Oak Bluffs,” a disparaging tack in the conversation that Mr. Mayhew cut off.

“There is a degree of truth to us being ‘the wettest little dry town,’” said Mr. Mayhew, which was met with laughter from meeting attendees.

“I’ve lived next to the Home Port for 40 years,” said Barbara Fenner. “I don’t want those days to come back when I could hear the dishes going into the dishwasher at 1:30 in the morning. It’s crazy enough down there, and you all know that. Do we want to impact Menemsha any more by bringing alcohol? I don’t think so. Can we be the last town on Martha’s Vineyard that doesn’t serve alcohol? Yes we can.”

Jonathan Mayhew weighed in: “It certainly makes an impact on the harbor as well.”

Mr. Aronie, who remained cool in the face of the constant barrage, argued that the Home Port does not have a competitive edge with other restaurants on the Island because of its inability to serve alcohol. “It puts us on a different playing field as far as business is concerned.”

Mr. Aronie stated that 40 percent of his customers are walk-ins, and many turn away when they hear there is no alcohol. He added that the full parking lot does not mean the restaurant is full — that people are “all over Menemsha” — and that beer and wine make a profit and are nonperishable.

“Over 300 years we’ve been dry in this town,” Mr. Poole said. “We get a few people from away move in here, and they want to change it. We don’t need to change it. If they need a competitive edge, why don’t they improve their menu?”

Jane Slater of Over South Antiques on Basin Road added her view. “Attract more people? Where are you going to put them? It’s silly. We don’t need beer and wine to bring more people to Menemsha.”

“We understand the sentiment of this meeting,” said Mr. Doty. “If we get a petition requiring us to put it to the annual town meeting, we will.” Mr. Doty noted that he recently had a “very nice meal” at the Home Port: “It is a great asset to the town of Chilmark.”

In other news, selectmen gave tentative approval to HGTV to film “Island Life” from Sept. 29 to Oct. 6, pending a conversation with Edgartown selectmen to learn if they had a good experience with HGTV during “Dream House.”

Selectmen also noted that Menemsha needs a master plan, and that some upgrades will cost real money. “It’s time for us to really admit that we have to upgrade our bathrooms,” Mr. Doty said. Selectmen also approved Jerry Weiner as the new assistant building inspector. Mr. Weiner is also the Aquinnah building inspector.