Needham voters may soon be deciding whether the historically dry town should allow the sale of alcohol in stores to be consumed off-premises.
Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick 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 chair of the Board of Selectmen Moe Handel. “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.
“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When Prohibition was repealed starting in 1933, it was done on a state-by-state basis – and towns had the option of remaining dry, which is what Needham did, said Greis.
“In the 19th century and early 20th century, Needham had a very strong temperance movement,” said Greis. “Being a dry town has been part of the town identity for a long time.”
Needham isn’t totally dry – the Sheraton 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 that she is looking at several possible options for exactly what the home rule petition would allow.
It could allow the sale in package stores of all alcohol or just of beer and wine; for the sale of beer and wine only in supermarkets, or for the sale of beer and wine in wine and cheese shops.
“These are options that are being discussed,” she said.
Handel said that these weren’t necessarily the only options on the table, but that they were the ones that had come up so far in discussion.
Taverns will still not be allowed under the change, he said.
If town meeting members vote yes on the article, Fitzpatrick said, then the town will bring it to the State Legislature for approval. Then it will go back to the voters in a referendum, which she said she didn’t expect to happen until April 2013. If the voters said yes, she said, it would become effective immediately.
If the referendum passes, said Fitzpatrick, then according to the state guidelines based on population, Needham would be allowed six all-alcohol license 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.”
Handel said that the split in public opinion makes it a good issue to simply put before voters.
“Anybody in Needham who wants access to wine, beer, or even hard liquor can easily obtain that legally a short drive from Needham,” said Handel. “So the question is whether having that available within the confines of the town constitutes a major change. For some people it does, and for some people it doesn’t.”