SEA ISLE CITY — In a town where the number of liquor licenses greatly exceeds what the state normally permits, and where many of those licenses are held by local power brokers, it appears to be last call for any more alcohol.

That was the message City Council sent Tuesday, agreeing with residents who said enough may already be too much, and there certainly isn't room for more.

A five-month discussion, started in October with a hopeful brewpub owner’s petition for relief from the city’s 1,000-foot rule between competing liquor establishments, has ended in a 3-2 vote against allowing council the ability to grant waivers to the 1976 law.

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Council President John Divney and Councilwoman Mary Tighe voted yes. Councilmen Frank Edwardi, Jack Gibson and Bill Kehner voted no.

Those in favor suggested the pub would be an attraction for tourists, while those against argued it would degenerate into another bar and lead to a decline in quality of life for residents.

“Where there’s bars, there’s trouble,” said Mike Monichetti, owner of Mike’s Seafood and Dock and a resident of the 200 block of 43rd Street, adding he would rather have police looking for a lost child on the beach or assisting with a medical emergency than dealing with the nuisance of public urination by inebriated visitors.

Brewpub licenses are issued and policed by the state, not the municipality, although the council told Monichetti that Sea Isle’s police force would answer complaints that violated municipal code.

“We’ve got to have 18 to 20 bars, counting pool bars,” Monichetti said, ticking off the names of several establishments, starting with the one owned by Mayor Leonard Desiderio and including one owned by Tourism Commission Chairman Jim Bennett. “Don’t you think that’s enough? You ain’t got 18 pizzerias in this town. You’ve got to say ‘stop.’”

“What I keep hearing from people is maybe we should take a look at what we’re doing now,” said Divney, intimating that there may be too many licensed establishments in the resort already.

Because the state bases liquor licenses on year-round population, Sea Isle’s 2,114 residents barely qualify it for any licenses. But all of the city’s licenses are grandfathered in, so the New Jersey statute permitting one consumption license for every 3,000 residents and one distribution license for every 7,500 residents does not apply.

Monichetti’s emotional plea to the council, which included references to his family and the uncertainty that a brewpub could open nearby, was not lost on Bill Topley, the majority owner of Ludlam Island Brewery. Topley thanked the council for its time in considering his proposal, then spoke directly to Monichetti.

“To Mike Monichetti,” Topley said, turning at the podium to address the seafood business owner at the back of the room behind the 40 people in attendance, “you had me doubting whether I wanted a brewpub in Sea Isle.”

A long history of liquor

Sea Isle City has tried to combat its wild reputation by promoting itself as a family destination with nightlife. It voluntarily discontinued Kegs and Eggs in 2002 after complaints from homeowners about the rowdy behavior that ushered in Memorial Day weekend, but it continues to hold its annual Polar Plunge, which has grown into a four-day festival that centers on a frigid dip in the ocean and whose participants often have been imbibing.

“Everybody has worked hard the last 10 years to get away from the party-town image,” Chris Glancey, owner of Diamond Liquors and president of the city’s Chamber of Commerce, said Wednesday. “A brewpub would definitely be a step backward.”

The rule prohibiting liquor establishments from operating within 1,000 feet of one another, making Sea Isle the only Cape May County coastal community to enact a law with such a distance, was put on the books almost 40 years ago in an effort to curb public drunkenness.

In all those years, only one liquor license has transferred into a prohibited zone. In 2005, the governing body approved a resolution transferring a liquor license to the Lobster Loft, which received a waiver from the nearby Methodist church. Churches and schools are included in Sea Isle’s 1,000-foot rule, which is quintuple the state’s 200-foot rule for those uses.

Bennett said Tuesday that the consumption license was in place when he and his partner purchased the restaurant, and Glancey, who said he was the one to transfer the license 10 years ago, corroborated that Wednesday. And although the topic of a precedent having been set in that instance was broached at the meeting, it was not pursued by either the council or Topley.

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Topley said Tuesday after the meeting, adding that he needed time to weigh his options going forward. “I knew it could go either way.”

Protecting their investments

“We originally lobbied against the creation of craft-beer licenses,” said Bennett, who also serves as president of the New Jersey Licensed Beverage Association, which represents the state’s 800 tavern owners. “The reason is our association feels we have paid top dollar for our licenses, and we are a lobbying group to protect the value of those liquor licenses.”

That cost can run up to $1 million in Sea Isle, said Glancey, co-owner of the new Doc MacGrogan’s Oyster House being built on the old Busch’s site in the Townsends Inlet section of town. His is the nearest competing liquor establishment to Ludlam Island Brewery’s proposed location in the 8300 block of Landis Avenue.

Like Bennett, Glancey wears multiple hats, which brings him a level of scrutiny he understands but explains simply.

“It’s two hats but with the same goal in mind,” he said. “What’s good for our businesses is good for the town. You can’t do one without the other. That’s how we’ve been so successful the last 10 years.”

Bennett said he did not discuss the ordinance and its implications with anyone in Sea Isle, and that its defeat would have no effect on the Tourism Commission’s mission.

“As tourism chair, this decision has no bearing on how we do our job marketing the city,” Bennett said. “We market Sea Isle City.”

Contact Cindy Nevitt:

609-463-6719

@ACPress_Nevitt on Twitter

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Press copy editor since 2006, copy desk chief since 2014. Masters in journalism from Temple University, 2006. My weekly comics blog, Wednesday Morning Quarterback, appears Wednesday mornings at PressofAC.com.

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