About 40 people gathered Wednesday night at the Chatterbox Restaurant for an information session about the "Bring Your Own Bottle" (BYOB) initiative in Ocean City.
The event was sponsored by the Friends of Shop, Dine and Play in Ocean City, the political committee supporting the idea of bringing BYOB to Ocean City.
In a low-key presentation, the event organizers said they respect everybody's right to have their own opinion on the issue, but that they wanted to make sure everybody's decision on the May 8 ballot question is based on good information.
"There are a lot of myths going around that we're hoping to dispel," said Bill McGinnity, owner of Cousin's Restaurant and an organizer of the BYOB petition drive.
Jeff Sutherland, an Ocean City resident and attorney representing the BYOB petitioners, provided legal information related to some of the "myths":
- The proposed BYOB ordinance will be challenged in court because it excludes Boardwalk restaurants: Sutherland said there is case law to support a municipality's right to define where BYOB will be permitted. "This statutorily reserved right cannot be understood ... to require a municipality to ban BYOB in all or none of its unlicensed premises," the state Appellate Division writes in a recent decision (Club 35 vs. Sayreville). "The statutory language does not indicate any intention on the part of the Legislature to require a municipality to treat all unlicensed premises in the same way. ... It is more likely that the Legislature intended each municipality to make rational distinctions relevant to local conditions and the welfare of its inhabitants."
- The proposed BYOB ordinance cannot be enforced: Sutherland said restaurant owners can refuse service to anybody and that state law says, "A person who violates any provision of this act is a disorderly person" subject to the same penalties as any other disorderly person.
- The proposed BYOB ordinance would hurt restaurants because of slow table turnover in the busy summer months: Sutherland said individual restaurant owners could legally choose to allow BYOB only in the off-season or not at all.
- The proposed BYOB ordinance includes no limits on the amount of alcohol that can be consumed: McGinnity said a bill is in the works in the state General Assembly to allow a municipality to set limits. He said towns throughout the state face the same issue.
- Deed restrictions prohibit the consumption of alcohol: Sutherland said Ocean City's common deed restrictions (unenforceable anyway since the 1960s) prohibited only the manufacture and sale of alcohol. Drinking on the beach was permitted until the 1950s, and BYOB was prohibited only in 1984.
McGinnity opened the sessions with a brief outline of the group's mission "to strengthen the economy, strengthen the downtown and extend the season."
"We want to give visitors a chance to stay on the island," he said.
The audience appeared largely sympathetic to the BYOB cause during a question-and-answer session.
Asked about the absence of lawn signs to match the growing number of "No BYOB" signs, McGinnity said the group has no plans to distribute signs.
"Those signs aren't going to answer any questions for you," he said.
Ocean City resident Joanne Bernardini asked attendees to imagine summer nights with cars filled with two to four adults driving out of town for dinner over the four bridges leaving Ocean City. She suggested each carload might spend $100 to $200 somewhere else.
"It's something to think about when people ask, 'What's the economic impact?' "
Other residents pointed out Ocean City's reputation as a very wet dry town — with packaged goods delivery service seven days a week from off-island liquor stores, "private parties" at Ocean City businesses sometimes in full view through storefront windows and spotty enforcement of public drinking from open containers.
Ocean City resident Marie Hayes asked if the group had checked with police chiefs from other towns that have recently approved BYOB to see if police calls spiked.
While she didn't get a direct answer about calls to police departments, McGinnity pointed out calls to different city officials and business owners in other BYOB towns.
He said the mayor of Collingswood (who owns a home in Ocean City) said BYOB helped the overall character of the town. Instead of continuing to attract kids who wanted to make trouble, it brought in people who wanted to dine.
The session ended after about two hours and a plea to encourage Ocean City residents to get out and vote on May 8.
Similar information sessions are scheduled for April 25 and May 2. See detail.
An information forum presented by the political committee on the other side of the ballot question, the Committee to Preserve Ocean City, is scheduled for 7 p.m. tonight (April 19) at the Ocean City Free Public Library.