The Boston City Council, in an attempt to rewrite a decades-old provision dictating the way liquor licenses are awarded, has taken a big step toward seizing control of the permitting process back from the state.
In a 12-to-1 vote, the council last week approved a home-rule petition seeking to eliminate the cap on Boston liquor licenses. The measure would also allow the mayor to appoint members to the Liquor Licensing Board and increased the size of the board from three to five members.
The vote on Wednesday capped a two-year push by Councilor at Large Ayanna Pressley to return city control to the licensing process, which many consider a vital step in spurring economic development in neighborhoods that currently have few, if any, bars and restaurants.
The petition makes Boston the latest in a long series of Massachusetts cities and towns, including Somerville and Taunton, that have requested more licenses and more direct control over them.
If Mayor Thomas M. Menino signs off on the petition, it would then need the approval of the Legislature.
“I’m optimistic, and in it for the long haul,” said Pressley, who made her way through the council chambers Wednesday, stopping at the chairs of most colleagues to thank them and shake their hands.
Under a state law passed in the 1930s, Boston is restricted to 970 liquor licenses. The three-member Boston Licensing Board, which doles them out, is appointed by the governor, although mayors in many other cities in the state have long had the power to choose their liquor-permit boards.
The relative scarcity of the licenses has created an unofficial resale market, in which a single liquor license is often sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Under Pressley’s measure, all licenses issued in the future would stay with the business entities that obtain them, and not be tied to physical locations.
Licenses would be returned to the city for reissuance if the original business dissolves.
The provision would preserve the cap on the number of licenses for liquor stores.
Pressley said she has been encouraged by her conversations on the issue with Menino, who has 15 days to sign the petition.
Officials in the mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment about whether Menino supports the council’s bid to change the law.
The distribution of liquor licenses was a major discussion point throughout much of the recent mayoral race.
Several candidates called the heavy concentration of the permits in high-traffic tourist areas a detriment because they come at the expense of spurring economic activity in neighborhoods hungry for new jobs and development.
Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh, who often talked about making changes to the liquor licensing process while on the campaign trail, said he supported Pressley’s proposal.
“The scarcity and high cost of liquor licenses now disproportionately affects small-business owners in less affluent neighborhoods, which need strong revitalization efforts that largely depend on a thriving restaurant industry,” Walsh said in a statement. “I support any effort that helps people start restaurants and similar vehicles of neighborhood revitalization in places where our people actually live.”
Some members of the business community have expressed concerns that a flood of new liquor licenses could undercut the high prices that many of them paid to obtain their existing licenses.
Councilor Bill Linehan, whose district includes South Boston and Chinatown, was the lone dissenter, and expressed similar concerns in explaining his vote.
But several other councilors said after the vote that allowing more licenses, especially in neighborhoods that have very few, is vital to economic revitalization.
“We’ve seen how neighborhood business districts can flourish,” said Councilor Matt O’Malley, whose district stretches from Jamaica Plain to West Roxbury and part of Mission Hill and Roslindale, and who supported the petition.
“There was some concern from restaurant owners, but these changes won’t affect those licenses that are already in place.”