Citizens Group to Study Alcohol Initiative

By MAX HART

The Tisbury selectmen this week appointed the first members of an advisory group that will consider the sale of alcoholic beverages in the historically dry town, launching the formal exploration of a proposal that has long been a flashpoint for residents.

At its meeting Tuesday night, the board appointed six residents to the newly formed beer and wine committee. The committee is charged with examining the merits of an initiative to allow the limited sale of beer and wine in restaurants and inns. It will report its findings and recommendations to selectmen, although there is no set deadline.

Selectmen also said they will continue to accept members on the committee, which also includes the police chief, the fire chief and the former chairman of the state Alcohol Beverages Control Commission.

The appointments mark the first time the selectmen have formed a committee to examine the issue, which business leaders have been promoting for several years. Restaurant and inn owners in town have argued that being unable to offer beer and wine puts them at a disadvantage in attracting patrons. A growing number claim they are consistently losing business to Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, the only two towns on the Island that allow the sale of alcohol.

The push to sell alcohol in Vineyard Haven began in December 2004, when former Tisbury Business Association (TBA) president Jeff Kristal submitted a draft warrant article to allow the sale of beer and wine in a limited capacity at restaurants and inns. TBA members hoped it would be included on the annual town meeting warrant in April.

But the board felt that more time was needed to explore the issue, and rejected the article.

In September, current TBA president Stephen Perlman asked the board to form the committee with an eye toward pushing the debate forward and ultimately landing it on town meeting floor.

In order for Vineyard Haven to become a wet town, voters must approve a referendum on the town meeting floor; the change also requires state approval. Among the 350 cities and towns in Massachusetts, 17 are dry, including four of the six Island towns.

The board has supported the proposal in the past, but always with strict limitations and conditions.

On Tuesday night, the selectmen reaffirmed their position and expressed their desire to form an open-minded, bipartisan committee. With chairman Raymond LaPorte on vacation, board members Tristan Israel and Thomas Pachico stressed the importance of looking at the issue from all view points.

Five of the appointees, who spoke before the board on Tuesday, seemed to meet those requirements.

Jilana Abrams, who owns and operates the Doctor's House, a bed and breakfast on Mt. Aldworth Road, suggested to selectmen that - contrary to the view widely held among Tisbury residents - the sale of alcohol in restaurants would not change the town's character.

"Cumberland Farms's selling beer and wine would be really drastic, but we aren't talking about that. I think with modest, strict regulations it would not hurt the town," she said, adding she was originally against the idea. "What changed my mind was how dead the town seems. I think it would bring some life back into town."

Nancy Hall, who is also a member of the Tisbury historic commission, disagreed.

"I have lived here quite a while, and I do think it will have an impact on the town," she said. "I am concerned about costs to the town, in terms of increased emergency services for police officers, and I am concerned about the legal aspects. I am leaning toward being against it, but I could be swayed."

John Coskie and James Morse both said they had no hardened opinions. Mr. Morse, an Oak Bluffs police officer, said he lives in town and thought his experience as a liquor license compliance officer as well as holding a degree in law would give the committee a unique perspective.

Gretchen Snyder, who lives downtown, said she applied for a spot on the committee because of concerns that beer and wine sales would be only the beginning.

Bud Raymond, the sixth candidate, did not attend the meeting but was appointed unanimously along with the other candidates.

Speaking with the Gazette Wednesday, Mrs. Abrams said she decided to serve on the committee because she feels there no longer can be any denying that the town is losing business to Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, especially in the restaurant and hospitality industries.

"We are becoming the third choice for seasonal visitors who want to stay in one of the three towns," she said. "I have guests that tell me all the time that they tried to get accommodations in Edgartown and Oak Bluffs first, but couldn't and ended up in Vineyard Haven. This town needs a lot of fresh ideas."

She added: "I think what we're talking about really is a perception, and when people hear they can't order a beer or glass of wine in town, it paints us in this strange light. That feeling puts a bug in them, and the people who come here and spend their money want to be able to order a glass of wine with dinner.

Mrs. Abrams also said she does not think the sale of beer and wine in restaurants would lead to bars or package stores further down the road, concluding: "I think the more people hear about it, the more we discuss it and look into the pros and cons, the more comfortable they will be with it. I am certainly looking forward to finding out what the cons are, too."