Needham residents at a public hearing Tuesday night asked the town’s Board of Selectmen to move slowly granting liquor licenses if new regulations allowing the off-site sale of alcohol are passed by Town Meeting.
The proposed regulations would allow the Board of Selectmen to grant up to six all-alcohol licenses, and would add another two beer and wine licenses in 2018. Currently, the off-site sale of alcohol is not allowed in Needham.
About 50 residents turned out for the hearing. Speakers were divided over whether the town should pursue the new regulations: some lamented it as being “inevitable” while others said it was a necessary step forward for the town. Both sides supported cautious implementation.
“If we do go through with this, I think we should restrict it as much as possible,” said Needham resident Tom Langford.
Langford said that he opposed the sale of alcohol in Needham, but that if it becomes legal, the town should start by granting one or two licenses and see if there are any negative effects before granting any more.
Resident Stephen Zeitler said he was in favor of passing the regulations.
“I’m glad that Needham has joined the decade,” he said. Still, he urged the selectmen not to rush.
“My opinion is to start out with a few,” he said. “Basically, try it out.”
Stephen Epstein, a Needham physician and member of the Board of Health, said that he echoed concerns about rushing to grant licenses. He said he was speaking as a resident and not as a member of the Board of Health.
“The statistics say, be cautious,” he said. “I think that you do need to be proactive in considering what negative outcomes we are looking for.”
He suggested starting with fewer than six licenses.
The selectmen said that though the regulations do allow them to grant up to six licenses, they are not obligated to grant all six.
“I don’t think you would see a rush to license,” said selectman Moe Handel. “I think you would see a gradual licensing of applicants after scrutiny.”
Board of Selectmen Chair Jerry Wasserman reassured residents that the selectmen would be keeping an eye on the effects of licensing businesses to sell alcohol.
“I can’t imagine that if there are problems that show up, that this board will continue licenses,” he said.
A major concern of residents at Tuesday’s meeting was that allowing the sale of alcohol in Needham would increase the risk of underage drinking and change the character of the town.
Resident Daphne Davidson said she had two adolescent sons who she would worry about if the regulations passed.
“Accessibility is the number one issue for kids,” she said.
Davidson said she works as a therapist in a town that does sell alcohol, and that she thought Needham would be profoundly impacted by the new regulations.
“This will change the character of Needham,” she said. “It will, on a fundamental level, change.”
Other residents, however, disagreed, saying that it would be in the best interests of the store owners to make sure that they weren’t selling to underage children.
“People who own liquor stores, their livelihoods depend on following the law,” said resident John Comando. “It’s in their self interest to make sure that their business is on the up and up and they don’t serve minors.”
Though selectmen had planned to vote Tuesday night on whether to support the regulations in the town’s upcoming Town Meeting, they decided to defer it until May 8 so that the concerns of residents would have time to sink in.
The article will be discussed at town meeting regardless of whether they vote to support it. If it passes Town Meeting, it will need to be enacted by the state legislature. Then it will go to the citizens of Needham for a vote.
The soonest it could be on a ballot, according to Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick, would be November, but it would be more likely to be on the ballot in April.
The selectmen presented a list of possible additional regulations they are considering adding to the article if it passes. The regulations would be passed by the Board of Selectmen, and include issues such as the possibility of limiting hours of operation for stores selling alcohol; the possibility of prohibiting the sale of alcohol in convenience stores; the possibility of mandatory training requirements for staff selling alcohol; and possible regulation of where in town alcohol can be sold.
“This is an important issue to the town,” said selectman John Bulian. “It changes the culture, it’s going to change the look and feel of the town.”
Needham's Town Meeting begins May 7.
Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org