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Needham considers store sales of alcohol

Needham voters may soon be deciding whether the historically dry town should allow the sale of alcohol in stores to be consumed off-premises.

Kate Fitzpatrick, the town manager. is drafting a home-rule petition to present next Tuesday to the Board of Selectmen. The board will then ready the measure for the upcoming Town Meeting, scheduled for May 7.

“The town is evolving; people come and go,’’ said Moe Handel, chairman of the selectmen. “Every once in a while it doesn’t hurt to ask these kinds of questions.’’

Needham has been dry since Prohibition, according to Gloria Greis, executive director of the Needham Historical Society.

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“I think it’s part of the culture of the town,’’ Greis said.

When Prohibition was repealed starting in 1933, it was done on a state-by-state basis, and towns had the option of remaining dry, which is what Needham did, Greis said.

“In the 19th century and early 20th century, Needham had a very strong temperance movement,’’ Greis said. “Being a dry town has been part of the town identity for a long time.’’

Needham isn’t totally dry; a Sheraton hotel runs the only bar in town under a hotel license. Restaurants with 100 seats or more are allowed liquor licenses, and smaller restaurants are allowed wine and beer licenses.

But there are no package stores in Needham, and other than the Sheraton, there are no bars.

Fitzpatrick said she is looking at several possible options for the home-rule petition. It could allow the sale in package stores of all alcohol or just beer and wine. It could allow the sale of beer and wine only in supermarkets or in wine and cheese shops.

“These are options that are being discussed,’’ she said.

Handel said that those were not necessarily the only options on the table, but that they were the ones that had come up so far in discussion.

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If Town Meeting members vote yes on the article, said Fitzpatrick, then the town will bring it to the Legislature for approval. Then it will go back to the voters in a referendum, which Fitzpatrick said she did not expect to happen until April 2013. If the voters say yes, she said, it would become effective immediately. If the referendum passes, said Fitzpatrick, then according to state guidelines based on population, Needham would be allowed six all-alcohol licenses and six additional beer and wine licenses.

“The most commonly heard argument is, it’s really a public convenience,’’ said Fitzpatrick. On the other hand, she said, some people are concerned about public health issues, “particularly with respect to teenagers.’’