Needham Town meeting members voted 158 to 59 on Wednesday night to put a question asking whether to allow the sale of alcohol in retail stores on a townwide ballot.
The second night of Town Meeting was marked by impassioned debate. In addition to the proposed change to the town’s liquor laws, members voted down a controversial proposal to ban pesticide use on Town property after a lengthy and sometimes heated discussion.
They also voted to regulate the use of bows and arrows on town land, to appropriate funds to upgrade storage at Needham Historical Society, and to pass an annual article that sets aside Community Preservation Act funds.
A much-anticipated debate on a citizen’s petition that calls for a constitutional amendment overturning a 2010 Supreme Court decision was put on hold until the next session, with members agreeing at 10:45 at night that it was simply too complex for a late-night decision.
Article 21: Home Rule Petition – Off-premises sale of alcohol
Needham’s current liquor regulations prohibit the sale of alcohol for off-premises consumption. The town is not completely dry: restaurants with 100 or more seats are allowed liquor licenses, and smaller restaurants are allowed beer and wine licenses. The Sheraton runs the only bar in town.
The proposed changes to the liquor laws would allow liquor stores to move in to Needham. The town would be allowed six liquor licenses, with an additional two in 2018. No more than six at a time would permit the sale of all alcohol. The warrant article voted on Wednesday night does not change the liquor laws, it simply allows the town to put the question to a townwide vote pending state legislature approval.
Members argued that Needham residents who want alcohol can simply drive to the next town, or go to a restaurant. The town regularly grants one-day liquor licenses for special events. The shock of a liquor store, they said, would not be as great as others fear.
“Some of us may believe there is a certain quaint cachet to living in a dry town,” said Selectman Moe Handel. “The reality is that Needham has not been a dry town for many years, and has managed that change over time.”
Artie Crocker said that he grew up in Needham, and part of him felt like the liquor laws worked for him, so why not leave them alone?
“But the other part of me says hypocrisy, in my opinion, is the greatest detriment to any community,” he said. “Alcohol is – all the restaurants basically have it. Many adults drink. They’re going to keep drinking. Again – I’m on the fence myself, but I see it as a little hypocritical.”
Some members were deeply opposed, worried that allowing liquor stores in Needham would increase crime, teenage drinking, and alcoholism.
“I find it rather troublesome that the rationale to sell more liquor in Needham is because our youth have no problem getting it in surrounding towns,” said Catherine Kurkjian. “If our children have no problem going to surrounding towns to get more liquor, I don’t see why adults have to go down the block to get theirs.”
It is a mistake, said some, to fix what isn’t broken.
“As I turn this over in my mind, it comes down to a why or why not question,” said Paul Siegenthaler. “I think right now, we should err on the side of, ‘Why should we do this?’ Keep the status quo. Things are working fine.”
Ultimately, town meeting members argued that everyone in town – not just elected members – should get a chance to vote.
“This is a topic that there are strong views on both sides,” said Reginald Foster. “It probably will irrevocably steer us down a path to something that affects the character of this town, something that has been cherished in the past, but maybe should not last forever.”
He said he had polled his neighbors, and found them split. Town Meeting’s role, he said, is to speak for the people – and in this case, he said, the people should speak for themselves.
“I will vote in favor of this motion, not because I have an opinion on it one way or the other, but because I think it is our role here.”
Article 22: Pesticide Free Zone on land owned or managed by the Town of Needham
A citizen’s petition, submitted by town meeting member Susan Abbott and Needham resident Ellen Fine, proposed to ban the use of pesticides on town-owned land, arguing that pesticides are harmful to people and the environment, and an all-organic approach to land management would be more cost effective in the long run than a program that allowed pesticides.
Needham’s current integrated pest management system allows the use of pesticides on town land only as a last resort. The article would have allowed exceptions for outbreaks of stinging or biting insects or for mosquito-borne illness emergencies, but would otherwise have banned the town from using pesticides. It would not have affected pesticide use on private property.
The article was opposed by most boards in town, including the board of selectmen, the board of health, the finance committee, and the parks and recreation commission.
“We do appreciate the sincerity of the proponents,” said Selectman Daniel Matthews. “Everybody wants to improve the environment. We do not agree with their proposed motion or its adoption.”
Matthews and other town officials argued that the town is already mostly pesticide-free, but that banning pesticides altogether would tie the hands of town officials to keep the public safe.
Stephen Epstein, Chair of the Board of Health, said that there is no known organic way to control mosquitos, which can carry dangerous diseases like West Nile Virus and Eastern Equine Encephalitis – which can be deadly.
“It’s only going to take one death or one disabled person for everybody in town to come screaming to the board of health and ask, ‘Why didn’t you do anything?’” he said.
Fine argued that pesticides can cause cancer, ADD, ADHD, asthma, and a host of other diseases. She said that she herself had been chemically injured by pesticides.
Some town meeting members questioned whether her facts were accurate.
Richard Pollack, a public health entomologist at Harvard School of Public Health who has worked on questions of health and pesticides, called the conclusions reached by the petitioners “fatally flawed” and “misinformed.”
“Those pondering warrant 22 should be mindful that the [Environmental Protection Agency] has vetted pesticides in the Commonwealth,” he said. “I consider the warrant article 22 is not in the best interest of our citizens.”
Article 20: Bow and arrow regulation
Town Meeting members voted on an article to regulate the use of bows and arrows on public land in Needham.
An incident last fall prompted the article.
While firearms were regulated in town, according to Jerry Wasserman, Chair of the Board of Selectmen, bows and arrows were not.
The article bans the use of bows and arrows on town-owned land except with the consent of the Board of Selectmen. It also increases fines for infractions.
Town Meeting will reconvene on Monday, May 14.
Evan Allen can be reached at email@example.com