By Elise Takahama
BU News Service
BOSTON — State legislators are rethinking a proposal to put restrictions on the increasing popularity of outdoor beer gardens after hearing from nonprofit organizations worried the proposal could hurt efforts at fundraising.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Lowell, worked with Sen. Nick Collins, D-Boston, to file a bill that would put a cap on how many one-day liquor licenses a person or establishment could receive every year. Currently, state law allows individuals to apply for up to 30 one-day licenses in a year. The new bill would limit the number to 14.
Kennedy said he filed the bill after seeing that some businesses were taking advantage of the current law. While restaurants and breweries pay for an annual licensing fee, real estate taxes, utilities and insurance, some establishments — particularly beer gardens — were going beyond the law’s intent.
Sometimes businesses send different people to receive 30 one-day licenses each, allowing them to receive anywhere from 30 to 50 permits, if not more, per year, he said.
“The intent of the bill is to level the playing field so that everybody’s competitive,” Kennedy said. “In Lowell, the only people that can get a one-day liquor license are private nonprofits. But this is designed for the whole state, and there are communities in which that one-day license is abused.
After filing the bill, however, Kennedy said he learned that private nonprofits could potentially suffer from the changes as well, especially those that hold frequent fundraising events where they offer beer and wine.
As a result, Collins proposed a home rule petition for a seasonal license in Boston, Kennedy said. Once the bill is changed to reflect seasonal licenses, the specifics of cost and timing would be up to local control.
“Other cities wouldn’t have to (petition for seasonal licenses) once it’s in the bill,” Sen. Collins said. “Once it’s in the bill, it’s for everybody.”
Collins also added the nonprofits could easily be exempt from the restrictions.
Bonnie Butkas, executive director of Lowell’s Merrimack Repertory Theatre, said in a statement that she’s also been working with Kennedy’s office to figure out a compromise.
“We’ve been assured by Senator Kennedy’s staff that future versions of the bill would include an exemption or seasonal license opportunity for non-profit organizations like MRT,” Butkas said. “We know the senator values the contributions of nonprofits like ours to the vitality of the region.”
Ryan Wynn, secretary of the Lowell License Commission, said the Merrimack Repertory Theatre usually requests one-day licenses through their performance season, which includes about 135 to 140 dates.
The seasonal licenses could also benefit establishments like High-Octane Harley Davidson in Billerica.
Marc Coffman, who works at High-Octane, said his business usually applies for about 15 to 20 one-day liquor licenses every year for car shows, bike nights and family functions.
“We’re trying to be an active part of the community and the riding community,” he said. “We’re trying to take a responsible approach and fortunately, it’s been successful … It’s certainly a big part of what we do.”
High-Octane often gets up to 300 or 400 attendees at events, many who drive more than two hours to get there, he said.
“It would be a different story if it pulled people away from local businesses. But I think a lot of people actually leave and go someplace like Jon Ryan’s (Pub) down the street for a meal,” Coffman said. “I think we’re actually bringing them business.”
Dan Fairfield, chair of the Fitchburg License Commission, agreed that seasonal licenses were a good compromise.
“I would agree that the special one-day licenses weren’t really created or serve the purpose of these recurring for-profit ventures. They’re for special events, like weddings, and most events in the area aren’t for for-profit enterprises.”
In Fitchburg, community group Beers for Good and the Fitchburg Senior Center usually request one-day liquor permits for several events per year as well, Fairfield said.
While the Lowell Licensing Commission hasn’t formally discussed the bill, Wynn said he thinks it should be up to local authorities to make restrictions.
“It’s up to the licensing authority to determine if the applicant is doing something excessive … It up to them to decide whether it’s too much,” Wynn said. “I think they’re the ones who should make the distinction. But I understand what the legislators are intending to do, and I think there will be additional debate.”
Kennedy is assuring residents that local license commissions will still have the final say in approving one-day permits.
“All we’re looking to do is to correct an inequity to a current loophole in the system. It seems to me that on the face of it, it’s just a fair way to do it,” he said. “We’re not interested in heavily policing the one-day license.”
This article was previously published in Sentinel & Enterprise.