OCEAN CITY — A group of restaurant owners started a petition drive Tuesday to allow patrons to bring their own alcohol — but just beer and wine — when they dine on the island.
The group says it opposes the sale of alcohol, which has been prohibited here since a group of Methodists developed the resort on little more than a cow pasture a century ago. But the restaurateurs said a Bring Your Own Bottle policy would help their businesses.
“I think it will enhance what Ocean City has to offer. It will help downtown shopping,” said Bill McGinnity, who owns Cousin’s Restaurant on Asbury Avenue and is helping organize the initiative. “Instead of driving over the bridge, people will go to restaurants in town. It could increase weekend business in the shoulder seasons.”
The move was immediately opposed by Mayor Jay Gillian, a local amusement-park operator who said the resort’s success is based on such prohibitions. He said any easing of alcohol restrictions would tarnish the city’s image.
“It’s great the way it is. We are America’s Greatest Family Resort. Our brand is nationally known,” Gillian said. “It’s a shame. A few people are trying to change a way of life in Ocean City.”
It will take more than a few people to bring the issue to voters in November. City Clerk Linda MacIntyre said the petition must have 747 signatures by registered voters and must meet a Sept. 6 deadline to get on the ballot. It will be her job to validate the petition.
McGinnity said the question would ask for a simple “yes” or “no” on whether BYOB should be allowed. A majority vote will determine if a formal policy should be enacted by City Council.
The group has already drafted an ordinance to set parameters, including: the types of alcohol (beer and wine), hours it would be allowed (2 to 11 p.m.), amounts (one bottle of wine per patron or a six pack of beer or wine coolers per two patrons), and even how it would be brought into an establishment — such as going through the back door at Boardwalk restaurants during summer but being allowed in the front door the rest of the year.
If approved, McGinnity said it would be up to individual restaurant owners to allow alcohol.
If it reaches voters for approval Nov. 8, the ordinance could replace an existing one that prohibits alcohol consumption at places that serve food. MacIntyre said council must adopt an ordinance if voters approve the question, and it cannot be amended or repealed for three years.
McGinnity argues the city already has plenty of alcohol. Though sales are banned, there is no ban on drinking. He pointed to the annual Night in Venice boat parade as an example.
“There’s alcohol in Ocean City. Look at Night In Venice. Everybody is drinking everywhere. Look at the recycling cans,” said McGinnity, who attended Ocean City High School but now lives in Linwood. “It’s here. It’s not alcohol-free.”
Gillian acknowledged Ocean City is “probably the wettest dry town” around, but he noted alcohol still isn’t allowed in public. He said a BYOB policy would change that. He said people would be strolling down the Boardwalk with six packs and it could “open Pandora’s box” by easing of other restrictions.
He compared the restaurant owners to people who buy a house next to an airport and then complain about the planes.
“What’s next, bars? We’re going to ruin what we have,” Gillian said. “They’re taking a hell of a risk trying to challenge our brand. Everybody wants to be Ocean City.”
McGinnity agreed it could open the door to alcohol sales, but noted the city would have to go to the state for permission to sell liquor licenses and that is not likely to happen.
Some restaurant owners had been waging an Internet campaign to ease alcohol restrictions, but City Council earlier this year passed a resolution in a 5-0 vote against allowing a BYOB policy. Council cited public-opinion polls that have showed people support the restrictions. Gillian said he expects strong opposition to form against any changes.
But a public ballot question in 1986 was successful in overturning the city’s blue laws limiting certain retail sales on Sundays, another holdover from the resort’s founding by Methodist ministers beginning in 1879.
The island, then known as Peck’s Beach, was developed by the Ocean City Association with sales limited to those who agreed to uphold strict regulations “against liquor and immorality,” a book on Cape May County’s history by Rutgers University professor Jeffery Dorwart says. Originally, Sunday bathing and travel was also prohibited.
The initiative has already split restaurant owners. Some have chosen to leave the Ocean City Restaurant Association over the issue, though McGinnity said the majority favor BYOB. He said there are about 75 restaurants in town with 54 in the association.
“All we’re saying is let the people decide what they want,” McGinnity said.
Gillian said the primary goal is to make more money, but it may backfire with lower customer turnover as restaurant patrons spend more time drinking.
“Just because you have BYOB doesn’t mean you’ll be successful. It all comes down to money and it’s a shame,” Gillian said.
McGinnity said the group will go for 800 signatures just in case some are invalidated.
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