At a public hearing Tuesday night, Needham residents asked selectmen to proceed slowly with issuing licenses to sell alcohol, saying that if the town had to lose its dry status they hoped it wouldn’t happen overnight.
Webster Street resident Daphne Davidson said she was “saddened” to learn that the change seemed inevitable. Davidson works as a family and adolescent therapist for the town of Burlington.
“Having worked in a town that is not dry for almost 24 years, [I know] this will change Needham,” Davidson said. “This will change the character of Needham, and all the regulations will be put in place, but it will on a fundamental level change.”
Davidson said that in her close work with Burlington Police she had learned that accessibility was the “No. 1 issue” when it came to alcohol problems in youth.
Davidson was one of about 45 residents who attended the hearing on Tuesday, April 24 at Powers Hall, the second hearing held by selectmen since the issue of allowing packaged alcohol to be sold in town was first raised last summer.
An article on the May 7 Annual Town Meeting warrant, if approved, would direct selectmen to submit a home rule petition to the General Court that would allow the board to issue up to six licenses for the retail sale of liquor, wine and beer in town, with an additional two licenses for beer and wine only, for a total of eight, allowed by 2018. Once approved by the state, the issue would return to Needham, where all registered voters would have the chance to vote at a special or regular election.
If approved, selectmen would become the licensing board.
Board of Selectmen chairman Jerry Wasserman assured residents on Tuesday that the change was not inevitable, saying the process would take some time and provide ample opportunity for public input. The board could choose not to issue all available licenses, he added, and each business seeking a license would require a separate public hearing, where concerns could be addressed.
While the Dec. 6 public hearing focused on whether the town should proceed at all with changing its dry status, Tuesday’s meeting centered on what regulations the board should consider if the measure passed at Town Meeting. Issues such as whether home delivery or amusements like Keno should be allowed as well as location were among the issues Wasserman said the board needed to address.
Several residents suggested the town limit the number of licenses issued to just one or two in the first year, to allow the town to gather local data on the impact.
The total licenses Needham is seeking to allow is about half what the state would allow given the town’s size and population, officials said. By going the home rule petition route, rather than having multiple ballot questions, the town can design the rules to best fit Needham.
North Hill Avenue resident Tom Langford said he would like to see the location restricted as much as possible, with liquor stores kept out of Needham Center, away from the high school and other areas where teens frequently walk and gather. He said he felt the town should follow federal guidelines in creating a buffer between liquor stores and schools, parks and other youth facilities.
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Langford said of the Town Meeting article. “I don’t think we should be going forward with this at all.”
Briarwood Circle resident Catherine Kurkjian said she didn’t think alcohol should be sold in supermarkets, especially where teens might be working.
“I think that groceries should be separated from alcohol,” she said. “If you want alcohol, I think you should go to a liquor store to buy alcohol.”
Richdale Road resident Stephen Epstein, a Board of Health member, said town officials should consider possible negative effects of allowing alcohol sales and decide how to gauge those effects when determining whether to keep issuing licenses.
He suggested the town might look at the police logs to determine if there was a certain number of assaults near stores or at local emergency room statistics to see if there were more alcohol-related injuries after changing the law.
“At what threshold do we decide that we don’t want to further this?” Epstein said.
Webster Street resident John Comando said he hoped the board would not be too restrictive in its regulations, saying the areas where stores would be allowed already seemed limited. He also felt the board should be able to issue up to six licenses, though they would probably not issue them all.
“I think this is the kind of business you want to have issued by special permit,” Comando said. “I think allowing it by right doesn’t allow for contingencies and is overly restrictive.”
Selectmen did not vote on whether to support the Town Meeting article, with members asking for time to consider the public comments before making a decision at the board’s next meeting on May 8. Though the Annual Town Meeting opens on May 7, selectmen said the issue would not come up until at least the second evening.