Officials welcome new plan for liquor
Senate would expand local control of licenses
As legislation to lift the caps on liquor licenses slogs through the State House, officials south of Boston say it probably would not make much difference in the short term, but they would welcome the expansion of local authority.
The initiative, proposed by Governor Deval Patrick, would remove limits on the number of liquor licenses a community could award, though individual retailers could hold no more than five licenses statewide or two in a community. The current system sets population-based quotas for most communities and requires them to petition the Legislature if they want more licenses.
Patrick’s proposal was included on July 1 in the Senate’s economic development bill. As the legislative session winds down this month, however, the House of Representatives has not yet included the measure in its version of the bill.
In unveiling the proposal, Patrick said the package of pro-business initiatives would help kick-start the economy and create jobs.
But south of Boston, the liquor-license provision received a cool reception from local officials contacted by the Globe.
Several towns already have wide latitude in awarding licenses, while some others are well below their existing quotas. And others, such as Foxborough and Norwood, have been allowed to exceed their quotas by petitioning the Legislature.
“This is not exactly something people are screaming for,’’ said Mike Lyons, chairman of Norwood’s Board of Selectmen.
The state-imposed quota for Norwood (population 28,602) allows 48 on-premises liquor licenses, but the town added three in 1998 and another three in 2003.
Lyons said the town petitioned for the licenses specifically to boost its economic development district, which at the time was very successful. Since then, however, some establishments have closed, he said, and there are now at least 25 licenses available.
Liquor licenses can be hot commodities when scarce, said Matt Sheaff, a spokesman for Greg Bialecki, the state’s housing and economic development secretary. But Sheaff and others acknowledged that while lifting the cap would open up the playing field, it doesn’t necessarily mean that local markets will be flooded with competition.
“It will still be up to the community to decide,’’ Sheaff said. “We really believe this will help the economy.”
The pending legislation would lift restrictions on all types of liquor licenses. That would extend the authority already available to officials in Plymouth, Kingston, Pembroke, and Middleborough.
Those towns are among the 25 statewide that took advantage of a slim window of opportunity decades ago to opt out of the quota system for “on-premises,” or Section 12, liquor licenses for bars and restaurants.
These 25 communities can award as many of those types of licenses as they want, while still limited in the number of off-premises licenses — called Section 15 — for carry-out operations, such as package stores.
Under the quota system, Plymouth (population 56,464) would have about 90 licenses of all kinds, comparable with the number for Weymouth (population 53,743), according to the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission.
But Plymouth has 106 on-premises licenses and 16 of 20 allotted off-premises licenses in use, the commission said.
Even though America’s Hometown has a downtown district packed with restaurants and sports bars, the state’s oldest and largest municipality has plenty of room to grow, said Town Manager Melissa Arrighi.
Arrighi said police patrols keep tabs on existing establishments, and the town is open to more licenses. “We are always trying to be business-friendly,’’ she said.
ABCC statistics also show that Walpole, Mansfield, Canton, and Milton are currently at their liquor-license limits, while Foxborough, Hingham, Norwood, and Wareham have petitioned the Legislature to add licenses as they have grown.
Foxborough, with 16,865 residents, was allotted 31 licenses by the ABCC but currently has 33 on-premises licenses and nine off-premises licenses. That means the town has successfully petitioned the Legislature for 11 more licenses than it was originally allowed.
And that’s not the end of it. Selectmen are negotiating with the town’s largest taxpayer, the Kraft Group, about jointly asking the state for a dozen more licenses.
Five would go to the town and seven would help expand Patriot Place, which the company owns along with the adjoining Gillette Stadium, the New England Patriots football team, and the New England Revolution soccer team.
Kraft Group spokesman Jeremie Smith declined to comment until the economic development bill is finalized.
But Foxborough Police Chief Ed O’Leary said he sees the legislation as a good way to keep such decisions in the hands of the town.
“I feel that having the full licensing decision being made by a community as a result either of a selectmen public hearing or perhaps as an action of Town Meeting would certainly be more valid than the Legislature allowing us to do it,” O’Leary said.
“Local control is control. And I think that is more appropriate.”
In some other communities, higher limits aren’t currently needed. Brockton, Quincy, and Whitman, for example, are well within their quotas, according to the ABCC.
Brockton Mayor Bill Carpenter, who is leading a push for economic development during his first term, said the liquor-license legislation won’t affect his city.
About 55 of Brockton’s 158 allotted licenses are unused.
“Brockton is probably in a different position than most communities in that we are well under our limit,’’ said Carpenter, who added that some elements of Patrick’s growth bill, such as incentives to assist struggling communities, might help Brockton.
But, he added, “I certainly get the spirit” of the liquor license proposal.
There’s also a lot of room for expansion in Plympton (population 2,820), which has issued two on-premises licenses and one off-premises license out of a potential 23 licenses, according to the ABCC list.
The ABCC is overseen by the state treasurer’s office. Al Gordon, deputy treasurer and director for policy, declined to comment on the proposal’s merits while legislation is pending.