OCEAN CITY — City Council rejected a measure Thursday that would have allowed restaurant customers to bring alcohol to a late lunch or dinner, setting the table for a May showdown at the polls.
Supporters of Bring Your Own Bottle service say they do not want to change Ocean City’s status as a dry town. But they think allowing guests to enjoy wine or beer with their meals could help local businesses and enliven the city’s struggling downtown.
Opponents of BYOB, including all of City Council and Mayor Jay Gillian, say relaxing rules on alcohol consumption would tarnish the image the island has cultivated as a family-friendly resort.
Petitioners have collected enough signatures — 382, 30 more than the required 352 (which qualifies as 10 percent of the population that voted in the last general election in the city, which was in November) — to put the question on the May ballot. Under state law, the question first went to City Council, which had the discretion to adopt BYOB on Thursday. Council couched the petitioners’ question in terms of repealing a longstanding ban on BYOB that was passed in the 1980s, when the concept started to gain popularity in New Jersey.
Council unanimously rejected the repeal by a 7-0 vote.
The supporters’ petition allows customers from 2 to 11 p.m. to bring alcohol to restaurants or cafes with tables and waitstaff everywhere but the Boardwalk, which is intentionally excluded.
Ocean City was founded in 1879 by the Lake brothers, a group of Methodist ministers who wanted to create a religious retreat on the island. The original deeds drawn up by the Ocean City Association, the religious group that developed the island, contained covenants and restrictions in keeping with the ministers’ religious tenets. Chief among them was a ban on the sale or manufacture of alcohol.
In voting down the ordinance, council will not stand in the way of a public vote May 8. Instead, they agreed Thursday to shepherd the measure to voters with an expectation that residents will vote it down.
“This issue is incredibly divisive,” Councilman Tony Wilson said. “I spent months listening to people on either side. This needs to go to a public referendum.”
Both supporters and opponents agree they would like to see the measure on the ballot.
City resident David French noted that some of the island’s restaurants are struggling financially.
“I think we should give them an opportunity,” he said. “This is America. We’re America’s ‘Greatest Family Resort.’ I think it should be put on the ballot for people to decide.”
Other residents said relaxing alcohol rules could lead to more crime and drunken driving in Ocean City.
Supporters on Feb. 28 submitted 382 signatures. City Clerk Linda MacIntyre certified the petition as valid last week, days before she was required to by law. MacIntyre said she did not want to stand in the way of a public vote.
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