Massachusetts: Mayors behind push for greater local control of alcohol licenses

By Colleen Quinn, State House News Service August 19, 2013
Dorchester Reporter
A Boston city councilor and three mayors are pushing to overturn the state's "antiquated" liquor license law by lifting caps and wrestling control away from the state to give it to local communities.

At Large Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley said a 1933 law that gives the state authority over liquor license caps hurts small restaurant owners who are unable to find an available license, and deprives neighborhoods of needed economic development. Often the only way to get a license is to buy one that someone else is holding - a task that some say is nearly impossible or extremely expensive.

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone and Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll have joined the move to take control away from the state and give it to cities and towns. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino is also on board.

State lawmakers routinely give communities additional liquor licenses through special bills, but proponents of changing the law argue the current system is arbitrary and inequitable.

Pressley filed a home rule petition that would lift the cap on licenses in Boston. Her petition would also ban the transfer of licenses out of empowerment and urban renewal zones; require all new licenses to be returned to the city when a restaurant closes; grandfather current licenses; and close a loophole that ties a license to an address rather than a business.

"I know that a thriving Main Street is critical to helping the vitality of a neighborhood," Pressley said during a hearing at City Hall Wednesday. "Right now due to a confusing cost-prohibitive process, we are making it harder for restaurants, and by default, our neighborhoods to succeed."

Some in the restaurant industry oppose the move, fearing it will create competition for existing businesses that have already paid for licenses. A full liquor license could run upwards of $300,000.

Restaurants create tax revenue and jobs, Pressley said, adding she was not advocating for more bars or clubs. Proponents of giving communities authority to grant their own licenses said local officials have a better handle on their neighborhoods than the state.

License caps disproportionately hurt some neighborhoods of the city, Pressley said. The North End has 99 liquor licenses within 0.2 miles while Roxbury has 26 liquor licenses, mostly for box liquor stores. Mattapan has nine liquor licenses. Boston has been maxed out on licenses for some time.

City Councilor Frank Baker, who owned a restaurant in Dorchester, said when he sold his business he was disheartened when the man who bought his liquor license later sold it to someone in a trendier neighborhood. In his two years on the council Baker said he has watched many restaurants close, "and none of those licenses have remained in Dorchester."

Pressley's home-rule petition needs city council approval, and then the mayor's signature before it heads to Beacon Hill.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino sent a letter to the council in favor of the idea, saying neighborhoods need to foster environments where people can "live, shop, work and eat." Menino said he has two bills on the issue pending in the Legislature. One would increase the number of liquor licenses in the city and another would give authority of granting licenses to the city's licensing board.

Curtatone said restaurant owners find it difficult to locate in Somerville because of a lack of available licenses. If control was given to cities and towns, local officials would have policies in place to stimulate economic growth, he said.

"We are better equipped to understand what we need, not the Legislature," Curtatone said.

Having to ask lawmakers for additional liquor licenses is extremely inefficient, and sets up an inequitable system, Curtatone said.

In one instance, Somerville officials waited one year for a particular petition that was eventually not granted. Yet, a number of communities are authorized to issue unlimited licenses for wine and malt beverages, including Worcester and Plymouth, according to Curtatone. Other cities and towns have difficulty when they attempt to get additional licenses, he added.

"There is a definite inequity," Curtatone said.

In recent years, some communities received liquor licenses in batches, while others were granted seasonal licenses. Patriot Place in Foxboro received a handful of licenses when it was built.

Bob Selby, vice president of the Package Store Association, told the News Service his organization is not opposed to granting more "on-premise" licenses for restaurants, but feels Boston has enough package store licenses.

Selby said when the law was established after Prohibition "a quota system was established for a reason." Current law allows one liquor license to every 5,000 people in the population, according to Selby.

"Since Prohibition every bit of research has shown that increasing the density of package stores in any given area has shown an increase in drunkenness, violent crime, domestic abuse and DWI (driving while intoxicated)," Selby said. I

n addition, if more liquor stores crop up it would hurt existing businesses and diminish the value of the liquor licenses that store owners already purchased, Selby said.

Rep. John Scibak, who co-chairs the Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure which reviews all liquor bills, said it is an issue worth examining, and added there were interesting points made during the hearing. Scibak attended the City Hall hearing.

"We are looking at a process that goes back to 1933. Clearly there's some differences across communities and things have changed in 80 years," Scibak told the News Service. "We have to be concerned that we don't create additional problems."

Scibak said if the Legislature does not address the issue "we are going to be in a situation where every community is going to hit their cap and say we want more licenses."

Scibak, a Democrat from South Hadley, said he is open to the idea of giving control of the number of licenses to municipalities, but it will always be under state control because license holders will still have to go before the Alcohol Beverage Control Commission (ABCC).

"But I had a colleague that said to me if a community decides to have an unlimited number of bars and restaurants, that should be their decision," Scibak said.