Beer and wine: fine? Or, wine and beer: oh dear? A barbed public discussion at the Katharine Cornell Theatre Tuesday night appeared to bring neither residents nor selectmen any closer to which of these — if either — should be Tisbury’s town slogan going into the annual town election this spring.
And in the lead-up to April 15 — when voters will decide on whether to allow the town to license the sale of beer and wine by restaurants and cafes of a certain size — few residents at the meeting were seeing the lighter side.
Harbor master John (Jay) Wilbur took selectmen to task over illicit alcohol sales in Vineyard Haven.
“Can you buy a bottle of wine in a Vineyard Haven restaurant?” he asked the board.
“No,” said Tristan Israel, Tisbury selectman.
“You can. My in-laws were offered wine this weekend,” Mr. Wilbur said.
“The fact is, legally you can’t,” said Mr. Israel.
“Who is supposed to enforce it though?” asked Mr. Wilbur.
Though the board pointed to the police force and added that as selectmen they can pull a restaurant’s license under such circumstances, they did concede that administering the law can be difficult.
“It’s easy to make regulations, it’s tougher to enforce them,” said selectman Thomas Pachico. Mr. Pachico described himself as “sitting on the fence” with this issue, though he argued against it at various stages, at one point observing that with more regulations come more loopholes.
“Will a 19-year-old get a beer? I dare say they would,” said Mr. Pachico. “I know I did.”
Last spring at the annual town meeting, Tisbury voters approved a warrant article allowing the selectmen to submit a home rule petition to the state legislature authorizing them to license beer and wine sales in certain restaurants.
The beer and wine bill made its way through the legislative process and to Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk, where it awaits his signature.
The majority of residents who spoke at the open forum Tuesday night argued against converting the town from dry to wet, warning that alcohol sales would critically alter the town’s character.
“We came to this town for how it is and we don’t want to change it,” said resident Bob Reinhardt. “You know, we’re old Yankees, a lot of us.”
Several members of a beer and wine review committee formed by selectmen at the end of 2005 to assess the impact of the change on Vineyard Haven were present.
The committee found that the financial impact would be negligible though they did not address any potential cultural effects on the town.
Several attendees also voiced disappointment with selectmen for not taking a strong position on the issue.
Mr. Israel, who said he favored the bill but would probably not make up his mind until election day, shared residents’ concerns over a perceived threat to the town’s character.
“There’s a nice little coffee scene here, will it get stomped on in this? I don’t know,” Mr. Israel said. He said he also saw a threat to the bring your own (BYOB) arrangement currently operating at many Vineyard restaurants.
Holders of the proposed beer and wine license would be required to give up their BYOB privileges. Also, Mr. Israel sees a possible conflict between the two approaches, should the bill be approved.
“Ten years from now are these licensees going to be calling for BYOBs to end, because they’re interfering with their profits?” he asked.
Permission for BYOB comes from the selectmen.
Most of those who spoke in favor of allowing alcohol sales were restaurant and inn operators, including Steve Perlman owner and operator of the Hanover House who argued it would give officers something tangible to enforce.
“Police officers find it more difficult to regulate what goes on now,” he said, adding: “We can construct all kind of fears around this, but we can’t be afraid of change. [Without change] fifty per cent of the people in the room couldn’t vote. Women raise your hands to give up your vote . . . . one tenth would be slaves.”
Nancy Hall, a resident, criticized Mr. Perlman for conflating the town beer and wine issue with the considerably more significant issues of female suffrage and black emancipation. She went on to take a dig at the selectmen for their softly-softly approach.
“I don’t see how it’s going to benefit us as taxpayers and it’s easy to be political and sit on the fence in this day and age,” she said.
Mr. Pachico later answered the criticism, arguing that it is not the selectmen’s job to sway votes on such a complicated issue.
“We’re not the tsars of Tisbury,” he said.
Draft copies of the proposed beer and wine licensing policy circulated at the meeting detail the proposed restrictions on alcohol sales.
The home rule petition would authorize the town to grant 10 year-round and up to 20 seasonal licenses to venues serving food that seat over 30 customers.
Eligible town restaurants include Le Grenier, Artcliff diner and Mediterranean. Cafes such as the Bagel Authority, the Black Dog Bakery and Mocha Motts would also qualify.
Though the licenses would not allow package stores or the sale of spirits, many present at the meeting argued a full permissive attitude to alcohol sales would be inevitable over time.
“It may be the camel’s nose poking in the tent,” said Mr. Pachico.
Though the first liquor license on Martha’s Vineyard was issued to a publican in what is now Vineyard Haven, the town has been dry since 1834, when a ban was imposed on the sale of all alcohol.
A vote on the licensing policy will be taken as part of the spring annual town election this year.
Though the issue has appeared on election voting forms in various guises four times since 1968, selectman Denys Wortman is hoping that the democratic process will provide a satisfactory answer to the issue that has long dogged Tisbury residents.
“I hope the turnout is 99.5 per cent,” he said.