One of the hottest political issues in Ocean City’s history will finally be decided by a vote Tuesday after more than a year of discussion and argument.
The ballot question asks voters if they want to repeal a 1984 law that bans alcohol consumption in city restaurants, replacing it with a new law that permits patrons to bring their own wine or beer to certain restaurants from 2 to 11 p.m.
The BYOB law excludes Boardwalk businesses from permitting alcoholic beverages, and gives business owners elsewhere the right to still prohibit the practice. Selling alcohol will still be illegal in the dry town.
A main argument for the change is that it will make Ocean City restaurants more attractive and better able to compete with restaurants in surrounding communities. The central argument against it is that it will change the image of Ocean City as a family resort.
The two political committees supporting each side — with Friends of Shop, Dine and Play in Ocean City promoting the change and the Committee to Preserve Ocean City against the change — both made their cases for months, and now they can agree on at least one thing.
“I have a lot of feelings, beginning with tired,” said Andrew Fasy, chairman of Committee to Preserve Ocean City.
“I think both sides are just tired of it,” said Jeffrey Sutherland, a supporter and attorney for Friends of Shop, Dine and Play in Ocean City.
The seaside resort was famously founded in 1879 by Methodist ministers who wanted the island to be free of alcohol. Still, the restriction on drinking at restaurants was not written into law until 1984, when city officials complained that some restaurants were allowing people to drink on their premises.
By state law, if a restaurant doesn’t have a liquor license it can permit patrons to bring their own alcohol, unless the local government has a law specifically regulating it.
The council’s motivation at that time was actually written into the law: “These regulations are deemed to be in the best interest of the citizens and residents of the City, and are promulgated to maintain the traditional image and character of Ocean City as a family resort community.”
Naturally, that hasn’t stopped people from drinking in the city. The Nights in Venice boat parade is well-known for its crowds of heavy-drinking revelers, and liquor stores just across the city’s borders are packed with Ocean City residents and visitors on summer weekends.
The Ocean City Police Department handles between 50 and 80 DWI cases a year, and officers issue hundreds of citations annually for underage drinking at rowdy parties, according to police records.
The recent push to permit alcohol consumption at restaurants began sometime in 2010 when supporters of the idea started raising awareness online. When City Council voted down the concept, supporters gathered nearly 600 signatures over last summer to get the question on the November ballot.
The city government halted the effort again, though, when it challenged a section in the proposed law that put a certain limit on the amount of alcohol patrons could bring into an establishment. Officials said that went beyond the city’s authority, and the petitioners withdrew the proposal.
Nearly 500 more signatures later, the ordinance was revised to take out that limit and put it back on the ballot for the May 8 nonpartisan election.
With such a contentious issue on the ballot, it is easy to forget there are nine people running for four seats on City Council as well.
About half of the city’s 9,000 registered voters have cast ballots in these recent elections, but the turnout should certainly be larger this year.
That being said, neither side is acting overly confident going into Tuesday’s vote.
“This has to be the hardest election for either side to predict the outcome,” said Sutherland. “It’s a very personal issue. There’s a lot of emotion.”
The two political groups each had informational meetings to pitch their points of view in April. There were about three times as many people at the opposition group’s meeting than at the proponent group’s first meeting.
The Committee to Preserve Ocean City has also raised and spent several times more than Friends of Shop, Dine and Play in Ocean City. As of their latest financial filings with the state Election Law Enforcement Commission, the opposition group raised $16,648 compared to the proponent group’s $3,405 — $2,715 came as an in-kind donation of Sutherland’s legal services.
The Committee to Preserve Ocean City primarily spent their money on public relations, advertisements, post cards and lawn signs.
Fasy said his group gave away 700 “No BYOB” signs. Sutherland said some of the signatures his group received were from people who had “No BYOB” signs, saying they only put them on their lawns so as not to anger their neighbors.
The issue has certainly divided the city at times, and some people have said they would rather not admit their opinions in public.
The Ocean City Tabernacle church has asked its members to support those restaurants that oppose BYOB, and there have been a wide variety of comments on various Facebook pages related to the issue that accuse any restaurant supporting BYOB of having terrible food.
Fasy and Sutherland said insults and accusations hurled from either side have been regrettable, but they both complimented each other by saying that they ran clean campaigns.
Now, they just want it to be over.
Contact Lee Procida: