Beer gardens face a stealth attack on Beacon Hill
It’s February — not a time when most folks are obsessing about beer gardens. Except, of course, for a couple of Massachusetts lawmakers still intent on micromanaging liquor licenses on the local level.
When the beer garden season ended last fall, the phenomenon had reached new heights, with the open-air taps catering to crowds on the Greenway, the Esplanade, the Seaport District, and SoWa, and popping up in neighborhoods throughout Boston. Only the restaurant industry, which wasn’t fond of the competition, was grumpy at the development.
Consumers, however, were voting with their raised glasses. Which makes the bill filed by state Senators Nick Collins of South Boston and Ed Kennedy of Lowell so bewildering.
Most beer gardens operate under a series of one-day licenses. The Kennedy-Collins bill would bar any individual or entity from getting more than 14 one-day licenses in any given year. The current limit is 30 such licenses, but beer gardens have managed to operate through the summer season by having more than one applicant involved in the process.
Okay, that’s a less-than-honest and upfront approach, but one that has worked to hold down the usual bureaucratic nightmare while this burgeoning little industry has been growing.
Collins, whose district includes the popular Trillium beer gardens, now insists he signed on to Kennedy’s bill “to get a conversation going.”
Well, that it has certainly done — and not in a good way. Collins also maintains that his real aim is to include provisions for seasonal licenses in the home rule petition now being considered by the Boston City Council before it makes its way up to Beacon Hill — something Mayor Marty Walsh did not include in his original filing.
Walsh’s proposal calls for more nontransferable licenses over which the city — not state lawmakers — would have more say to distribute to new neighborhood restaurants. He is also looking for umbrella licenses for larger commercial areas.
Seasonal licenses might actually be a good idea — that is, if they aren’t designed to set the fees so high and make the regulatory framework so onerous as to stifle the growth of the beer gardens that Bostonians have grown so fond of. The devil here is definitely in the details.
What isn’t a good idea — in any way, shape or form — is the Kennedy-Collins approach to lowering the limit for one-day licenses. The legislation represents an extreme form of meddling in a process that could hurt scores of local nonprofits that routinely use one-day licenses for fund-raisers or for hosting private events, concerts, or cocktail receptions on their premises. A slew of nonprofits in Collins’s district would be over that 14-license limit if his legislation becomes law — the Boston Children’s Museum (18 licenses in the past year), UMass Boston (34 licenses), Hiram Grand Lodge (21 licenses), and even Our Lady of Czestochowa Church (19).
“I have no intention to harm nonprofits,” Collins said. “If that’s the case, if it causes an undue burden, we can work that out.”
Collins indicated that if he can get a seasonal license provision in Boston’s liquor license bill that he could “back off” the statewide bill. The time to “back off,” however, is now. Cosigning a bad piece of legislation that would do actual harm to Collins’s constituents isn’t the best career move.
Neither is picking a fight with the mayor over the future of licensing in Boston. The city’s representatives on Beacon Hill ought to be helping with what city officials view as an economic development issue, not standing in the way.