All Needham voters will have the chance to weigh in on the subject of allowing retail alcohol sales in Needham.
Though the state legislature must first approve the town’s home rule petition seeking the right to place a question on the ballot, it is likely the issue will come up at a local election in the next year or so following a vote of Town Meeting Wednesday night.
After about an hour of discussion in the second night of Needham’s , held in the on Wednesday, May 9, Town Meeting members put it to a vote, with 158 in favor of the measure and 59 against—enough of the required two-thirds approval needed to pass.
Some Town Meeting members and residents voiced strong opposition to the article, but others said they felt the decision that night was not about whether they personally wanted to see wine, beer and liquor sold in Needham but whether they felt all local voters had the right to express their views at the ballot box.
Precinct D member Reg Foster said he had people in his precinct who each supported one side or the other, all with good reasons.
“We do wonderful work in this room,” Foster said of Town Meeting. “We spend a lot of time on a lot of issues, put in a lot of hours and work in understanding what they are. There are issues that we consider that people in my precinct would not spend any time on at all, like figuring out what a foot candle is [a reference to a lengthy conversation about a zoning change from ]. However, in this particular case, I think that people in my precinct would like to express their opinion on this directly, because it does, probably irrevocably, steer us down a path to something that affects the character of this town.”
Needham has been essentially dry since before Prohibition. Following the federal repeal of Prohibition, residents voted at the March 1934 Annual Town Meeting not to allow the sale of wine, beer or other alcoholic beverages, reaffirming that decision at other votes throughout the 1930s and ‘40s.
Later decisions have allowed for alcohol to be served in Needham restaurants with more than 100 seats, and for wine and beer to be sold in smaller restaurants, and the houses the only bar in town, which is allowed under a 1960s hotel exception.
If voters approve the latest change, it would allow selectmen as the licensing board to issue up to six licenses for wine, beer or all alcohol, with two additional licenses, for a maximum of eight, allowed by 2018.
Speaking against the issue, Precinct B member Catherine Kurkjian said the change would add a burden on the , add visibility and accessibility to local youth and adults who already struggle with alcohol abuse problems and seemed to go against the work being done by the Needham Coalition for Youth Substance Abuse Prevention and other agencies in town.
“I find it rather troublesome that the rationale to sell more liquor in Needham is because our youth have no problem getting it in surrounding towns,” Kurkjian said, referring to an argument some had made in the past.
“I guess it matters what your priorities are, whether you want to be able to go down the street to buy your liquor or whether you want to be able to join the substance abuse coalition’s work in our town to try to prevent underage drinking,” she added.
Kathleen Rowe, who is not a Town Meeting member but a mother and longtime Needham resident, said she did not feel residents were “facing a hardship” by having to drive to Newton or elsewhere to purchase alcohol. She shared several statistics about the increase in crime rates around liquor stores and said she did not feel selectmen should be spending time issuing liquor licenses when there were other topics on which they should be focused.
Precinct I member Artie Crocker said he felt it was a little hypocritical for residents to purchase alcohol out of town but prohibit shops in Needham.
“I see it as a little bit hypocritical, like, OK, those communities can have it, but we don’t want it, it’s going to affect our youth,” Crocker said.
Several Town Meeting members argued that it was their job to bring important issues such as the alcohol sales decision to the voters.
“I find it disturbing that there may be members who would vote against this, saying they have a right to vote but we should limit the right of others in town to vote,” said Claire Messing, a member in Precinct C.
After voting down an amendment to the article that would have required selectmen to act on a license application within 60 days of it being filed, Town Meeting put the original article to a hand vote, with the yeas ultimately prevailing.
The vote allows the town to petition the General Court to allow a ballot question at an upcoming town election, date to be determined.
For a look back at the development of this issue in Needham, visit the Needham Patch archives (search term “alcohol sales”).