Freeze on liquor licenses debated

Freeze on liquor licenses debated


Attorney Vincent Naccarato recently addressed the Westerly Town Council about a "freeze" on liquor licenses. ( Grace White / The Westerly Sun )

WESTERLY — The Westerly Town Council is considering implementing a freeze on the issuance of new liquor licenses, but at least one local lawyer says that would be a bad idea.

The lawyer, Vincent Naccarato, appeared before the Town Council recently and said a freeze would turn liquor licenses into a “commodity” to be bought and sold. He appeared on behalf of Sam Bliven, the owner of Quarry Hill Properties, which in May purchased the former Gilligan’s Island, which closed last year. Naccarato said that under a previous freeze, liquor licenses were prized items that commanded large sums of cash. He also said the system came under scrutiny by state Liquor Administration officials and that they reprimanded the town for how the freeze was carried out.

Interim Town Manager Michelle Buck said the idea for a freeze came out of the town’s Committee to Review the Code of Ordinances as a means of addressing the concerns of Misquamicut residents who have complained that a proliferation of mobile food dispensaries could lead to the same mobile units being used to serve alcohol. Misquamicut residents have also complained that efforts by Sandy Shore Motel owner Gene Arganese to have a mobile trailer classified as a kitchen, for the purpose of being allowed to serve alcohol at an outdoor restaurant at the motel, could have similar ramifications. Additionally, Misquamicut Fire District voters have voted annually for many years to oppose the issuance of new liquor licenses in Misquamicut.

The freeze under consideration by the Town Council would limit the number of liquor licenses in the town to 76 in eight categories or classes, including those issued for package stores. The number of licenses in each class would also remain the same under the freeze. Naccarato said the freeze would create a scenario in which there would be no license for Bliven to apply for unless the council agreed to lift the freeze. Gilligan’s Island, on White Rock Road, had gone out of business when Bliven bought the property. The former owner had not renewed the liquor license.

“He purchased the property with the idea that they eventually would be running a restaurant and bar there,” Naccarato said.

In the past, the council retained the right to lift the license freeze for individual applicants, a system that Naccarato said was unfair and could lead to decisions being made on the basis of whether it’s “a person you don’t particularly like.” Each time the freeze was lifted, the council was required to advertise the proposed action and to conduct a public hearing.

“It’s not business friendly. We are a resort type of town and resorts need restaurants. You treat them all fairly on a case by case basis,” Naccarato said.

The current system, in which applications are made to the Licensing Board, is, Naccarto said, “an even playing field” involving an assessment of each applicant and their plans.

Councilor Patricia Douglas, whose previous tenure on the council included times when it also served as the Licensing Board, said she opposed the proposed freeze because “for many years licenses were sold as an individual’s personal property and they made a great deal of money on them.”

Buck said the council should try to find a policy that strikes a balance between economic development and the concerns raised by Misquamicut residents and officials.

Councilor Christopher Duhamel said he was leaning toward preserving the current system. He said he was hesitant to stifle a resurgence of new restaurants and bars in the downtown area. He also noted that under the current system, licenses are not issued unless approved by the chief of police.

Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr. said that while a freeze would have the effect of adding “a second set of eyes” to those seeking liquor licenses, he was concerned that it would cause those considering opening new businesses in the town to scuttle their plans. Instead of a freeze, Cooke said, the council should deal directly with the “root” problem of whether trailers can be used to serve alcohol.

Council President Diana Serra said she wanted to hear from Police Chief Edward St. Clair.

Douglas asked why Serra and Councilor Kenneth Parrilla, both members of the code review committee, could not simply report what St. Clair had said during the committee’s meeting. “That’s the whole problem. The people of this town elected seven people. The two on this committee did not come back and tell us what the chief said, so now we are sitting operating in the dark and we are at the zero moment and we are saying ‘we need to hear from the chief,’” Douglas said.

St. Clair, on Monday, said that he had not proposed the freeze and hoped to study the proposal and discuss it with town officials before rendering an opinion on it. During the past year, St. Clair said, a freeze has come up for discussion by the code review committee.

Lisa Konicki, Westerly-Pawcatuck Area Chamber of Commerce executive director, said the chamber had not been formally apprised of the proposed freeze. If asked, Konicki said, the chamber board would likely develop a position on the freeze before its regularly scheduled meeting in September.

The Town Council is expected to resume a public hearing on the freeze during its Sept. 9 meeting. St. Clair said he had been asked to attend.

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