Selectmen Back Late Initiative On Restaurant Alcohol Sales

By IAN FEIN

Buying a cold beer on the outdoor deck of the Aquinnah Shop may become a reality, if town voters in the coming weeks support a selectmen-sponsored initiative to allow the sale of beer and wine with meals in restaurants.

Aquinnah selectmen added the question to a March 8 special town meeting as a last-minute warrant article, which, if approved by voters, would start the process of changing the historically dry westernmost town on the Vineyard.

The warrant article comes only a few months after a surprise ballot initiative last fall nearly made the entire town wet. That question, which appeared on the state election ballot as a citizen petition circulated by Outermost Inn owner Hugh Taylor, fell just two votes short of approval, 101 to 103. Ten ballots were left blank.

If it passed, the ballot question last fall would have allowed the sale of hard liquor and other types of alcohol in package stores and bars, as well as restaurants. The proposal that selectmen are now putting before voters is much more restrictive.

"The election was much closer than we thought it was going to be," selectman and board chairman Michael Hebert said this week. "So given those results, we thought we should put it back to the people and give them an opportunity to vote on it the way we wanted it to be seen."

Selectmen borrowed language for the warrant article directly from Tisbury, where a similar effort to allow beer and wine sales in restaurants has been underway for years. Supporters there say the initiative would help boost revenue for the struggling businesses, while opponents have expressed concern about possible changes to the character of the town.

According to the provisions of the article, beer and wine must be served by a waiter or waitress to a dining table, and the drinks must be consumed with a meal. The bylaw would only apply to restaurants with seating capacity of 30 persons or more, and the sale of alcohol without meals would be prohibited.

If approved at the Aquinnah town meeting next month, the request would then face another vote on the annual town election ballot in May before it is filed in the Massachusetts state legislature as a home rule petition. If approved by state lawmakers, the initiative would still require one more round of approval by town voters. Selectmen at that point could issue rates and regulations for the granting of such licenses, possibly requiring, for example, that a certain percentage of restaurant income come from food.

While the prospect of beer and wine sales has been an ongoing political controversy in Tisbury - with a public hearing on the warrant article attracting a standing room only crowd at the Katharine Cornell Theatre earlier this month - the initiative has garnered little attention or discussion in Aquinnah. Only two restaurants would qualify under the proposed article in Aquinnah - the Outermost Inn and Aquinnah Shop, which are both located on the Gay Head Cliffs - and because there is no commercially zoned property elsewhere in town, no other business could open as a restaurant to sell alcohol.

Aquinnah Shop owner Matthew (Cully) Vanderhoop was pleasantly surprised to learn about the selectmen-sponsored article this week.

"I'm glad to see that they're considering it. It's a movement that I think a lot of people will appreciate," Mr. Vanderhoop said on Wednesday. "People come such a long way to be in Aquinnah, and a lot of them would like to relax with a bottle of wine or a beer."

Mr. Taylor could not be reached for comment this week, but it is understood that the original intent of his citizen petition last year was simply to sell beer and wine to his guests.

The special town meeting next month will likely be well-attended, as there are a number of high-profile items on the warrant, aside from the proposed beer and wine provision. Mr. Hebert said he expects voters to approve the article and send it to the town election ballot in May.

"The pulse of the people? The feeling I get is that people will support this," Mr. Hebert said. "The whole alcohol thing barely failed last fall, so I think beer and wine is likely to pass."