OCEAN CITY - The debate on whether it should be legal for restaurant patrons to bring their own beer or wine to dinner is dividing this Cape May County municipality.

Since its founding as a Methodist resort more than 120 years ago, the city has never allowed the sale or distillation of spirits. Now, petitioners are trying to collect enough signatures to put legalization of bring-your-own-bottle, or BYOB, on the November ballot.

Supporters of the initiative have met with resistance from opponents who have used lawn signs, T-shirts and bumper stickers to oppose the idea.

Despite the prohibition, alcohol is a regular part of Ocean City life. People can get one-day licenses from City Hall to serve alcohol at banquets, weddings and other private parties at the city's hotels and clubs. On the city's bayfront, customers on most charter or fishing boats that have a state license can buy alcohol for sunset cruises or an afternoon of fishing.

Spacious liquor stores sit off the causeways in Somers Point and Upper Township just outside Ocean City. Some offer free local delivery of beer, wine or liquor on the island. All of these uses are being drawn into the BYOB debate.

"It's being magnified by the BYOB issue," police Capt. Steven Ang said. "It's bringing alcohol consumption on the island to the forefront."

Ang said police are remaining neutral.

"We stay in the middle and enforce the laws," he said.

At Pirates Cove Marina on the city's north end, charter captain Arthur Weiler said his business has become involved in the BYOB debate. Some neighbors have questioned his sale of alcohol aboard his charters, he said.

"I can't serve alcohol in Ocean City, Atlantic City, Brigantine, Marmora, Somers Point, you name it," he said. "Not a drop. But when you get on the water, the state license becomes effective."

Weiler said he is opposed to the BYOB initiative and cannot see how anyone might mistake his back-bay excursions for a floating bar. Weiler said his boat is similar to limousines that provide alcohol when they pick up Ocean City customers.

"I'm just taking people out to ride the bay. These are family people, grandmothers and aunts," he said.

Not that dry

Supporters of the ballot measure say the debate exposes the hypocrisy of a dry town that enjoys its suds and cocktails.

"People say it's the wettest dry town they've ever seen," Ocean City resident Joanne Bernardini said. "Banner planes fly over the beaches advertising ice-cold beer and pick your flavor. You can go to a private club. This puritanical view that there should be no alcohol in Ocean City is just not genuine. It's insincere."

People are taking sides in the debate, with some residents and business interests in favor and some church groups and elected officials on the other. So far, the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce has neither endorsed nor opposed the ballot initiative.

"I think it's been tough economic times for restaurants across the nation," chamber Director Michele Gillian said. "It's good to look at new things. They're looking to grow their markets. But before you take that step to go to BYOB, we need to look at who we are and why we are such a popular place to visit."

Gillian said the BYOB debate has helped to crystallize the island's selling points.

"Many people have brought forward this social conversation and this political conversation," she said.

Petition sponsor Bill McGinnity will present his proposal to chamber trustees Aug. 2.

Several churches on the island are opposed to the measure, including the nondenominational Ocean City Tabernacle, the group that established the island as a Methodist retreat in 1879. On its website, the Tabernacle called for a boycott of restaurants that support BYOB.

"Eat in Ocean City and ask the restaurant owner or manager not to support BYOB. And then select to eat at restaurants that do not feel the need for BYOB," the group urges.

McGinnity said called the Tabernacle's campaign is "bullying from the pulpit."

"Love thy neighbor, unless he disagrees with your opinion," McGinnity said.

McGinnity said the issue has exposed the hypocrisy of a dry town that enjoys alcohol.

"They seem to be fine with alcohol, especially after a weekend like Night in Venice," he said.

The annual Night in Venice boat parade draws tens of thousands of revelers to the bay for lagoon parties and barbecues. As with most parties, alcohol is present.

The BYOB debate was a favorite theme among revelers, including one boat decorated like a pirate ship with the banner: "Yo, ho, ho, no BYOB for me." Another satirized the show "Deadliest Catch" with crab pots full of cases of beer and children dressed as cans of Budweiser.

Past Prohibition

Ocean City's dry status survived the Roaring 20s, Prohibition and its repeal. The Women's Temperance Union even donated a public fountain that still sits on Ninth Street and Asbury Avenue outside City Hall.

But illegal saloons, called speakeasies, were abundant in South Jersey. Ocean City was not immune from their influence, historian Jeffery Dorwart writes in "Cape May County, New Jersey: The Making of an American Resort Community."

Reputed Philadelphia bootlegger Max "Boo Boo" Hoff bought acres of marsh between Ocean City and Upper Township to run his liquor operation. In 1929, prosecutors raided 27 illegal taverns where alcohol was sold or consumed, Dorwart wrote.

These illegal taverns persisted through much of the 20th century. An Ocean City resident was sentenced to 15 years in state prison in 1997 for selling alcohol - and drugs - out of his Haven Avenue home.

"It seemed like they picked on the black neighborhoods. Every once in a while, you'd read in the paper about one of the places on West Avenue being raided," city historian Fred Miller said.

Ocean City's eight miles of beach and bay were regular haunts for rumrunners who tried to stay one step ahead of the U.S. Coast Guard, which enforced Prohibition on the water.

"The small boat station at Fourth Street was probably the busiest it ever was between 1920 and 1933," Miller said. "They spent the nights trying to intercept the rumrunners. When the Coast Guard was coming, they would dump the bottles overboard, and they would wash ashore."

Not the first time

Ocean City residents have pitched the idea of BYOB several times over the years, former Mayor Roy Gillian said.

When he was mayor from 1986 to 1990, Gillian said, he was pressured to adopt club licenses to allow the sale of alcohol. Then, as now, Ocean City had private organizations that serve alcohol to members.

"I knew the head of the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control. He said, ‘Why don't you have them apply for a club license and make it legal?'" Gillian said. "I didn't want to do that. I knew the temper of the town. I don't think a majority of people wanted it."

Gillian, whose family owns Boardwalk amusements including Gillian's Wonderland Pier, said the city has been all the better for its alcohol prohibitions.

"I know for a fact I was the only pier along the whole Jersey coast that didn't have security people on duty at all times," he said. "We just have a nicer clientele."

Today, Gillian's son Jay is Ocean City's mayor and, like his father, opposes relaxing the city's alcohol rules.

Petitioners have until mid-August to collect 747 signatures to get the question on November's ballot.

Contact Michael Miller: