Fewer people than last time attended Tuesday's hearing on a petition to expand the number of the city's all-alcohol licenses.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Public Safety Committee on Tuesday voted to recommend the City Council move forward on a home-rule petition to the Legislature for a fifth all-alcohol license.
The vote was 2-1, ending three often contentious meetings as current licenseholders again argued passionately for the city to reject the idea.
Vins & Viandes, also known as Steeple City Spirits or Liquors, located in the former Staples in the downtown plaza, has been attempting to expand its beer and wine business with an all-alcohol license.
Committee member Kate Merrigan said she could not vote for the petition after hearing from many residents that they do not support exceeding the state's quota for licenses.
"I would like to see them have one," she said. "I hope they can come to an agreement with one of the current license-holders."
Still, Merrigan admitted she could change her mind when the matter comes before the City Council next Tuesday.
"I'm very mixed about this," she said.
Committee member Benjamin Lamb said voting either way was in itself a form of favoritism. However, the state sets the standards for how many licenses a municipality can have, he said.
"It's not the city's decision to make," he said in making the motion to move the petition forward. "This isn't us making a decision on a liquor license, it's us passing it on to the state."
Chairman Keith Bona had made it clear several times during the hearings that he disagreed with limitations on new businesses, feeling that the city should not prevent businesses from expanding or opening without good reason. But he was not sanguine that the Legislature would feel the same.
"I think that's definitely the hardest step," he said. "I would not put my money on its passing because we passed it."
V&V, owned by Steeple City Plaza owner Neil Ellis and operated by Louis Matney Jr., had been rejected in its quest for an all-alcohol license by the License Commission based on the state's quota of one license for every 5,000 residents. The city is currently over that quota with four licenses and a population of 13,500; a fifth license has gone fallow.
At the same time, at least three of the businesses holding all-alcoholic licenses appear to be for sale, although V&V's attorney F. Sydney Smithers IV said the prices were not agreeable.
Committee member Kate Merrigan's motion to not recommend the petition failed to get second.
The state allows for home-rule petitions to request exemptions or additions to licenses and the business has asked the City Council to submit one to the Legislature.
Its success is iffy. The House recently rejected giving local control over off-premise licenses to municipalities (while expanding Boston's on-premise licenses by 75).
That showed the Legislature has made its determination, said petition opponent Robert West of West Package & Variety Store.
"The state has already made the decision by pulling one of them out of here," he said, and voted against the local control. "The state has already done this, they've already done this."
Current license-holders, including West, again spoke to the potential of lost business and devaluing of licenses by a newcomer trying to exceed set limits.
"How can you create a license that does not exist for 5,000 people who do not exist?" said Carol Boucher, reading a letter on behalf of Richard Sheehan, owner of Ed's Variety Store, which has a beer and wine license. If the committee and council agree to the petition, "you cannot deny future license requests," she read.
Bonnie Whitney raised the issue of V&V's one-day suspension handed down only an hour before by the License Commission for serving a minor. (Draper's Wines & Spirits was also suspended one day for the same the offense.)
"A kid still got through their very expensive POS (point of sale)," said Whitney. "I think it would be foolish for the city even considering this."
Bona, however, said such suspensions have happened to other entities and was a matter for the License Commission.
There was also an attempt to link V&V's pursuit of a license with recent issues with a local cab company. Bona said they were disparate issues, since V&V was working within the law while the cab company was violating city ordinances.
City Council President Lisa Blackmer said she had an issue with the law and didn't think the legislators should be making the decisions. She said she could see both sides of the issue but thought providing more selection would be good for area. "I think it would be interesting downtown," she said.
Louis Matney Jr., right, is hoping to expand V&V's business with a liquor license.
In contrast, Robert Moulton Jr., a former city councilor, said the state had made the laws and the city should be abiding by them rather than changing them.
"I think the need's being met," he said. "We're above the quota and I think businesses would suffer."
City Councilor Joshua Moran wondered what kind of criteria was being set with a home-rule petition.
"If we're going to push this through, are we going to be willing to grant a second and a third?" he asked, noting Sheehan had said he would ask for one as well.
Resident Wayne Goodell wondered if the submission of the petition by Mayor Richard Alcombright and its approval by the council would make it a slam-dunk on Beacon Hill since it would appear to be endorsed by city officials.
Bona didn't think so, noting the Legislature's rejection of local government control over quotas and the need for the city's representatives to back it. Alcombright said the petition would be submitted along with the tally of the council's vote, but not with any accompanying letters.
Former City Clerk MaryAnn Abuisi told the gathering that they had the right to testify at any legislative hearings. "They will listen to you," she said.