Residents would love to have extra revenues to lower their taxes, but seem to care as much about boosting the tiny, local restaurant scene.
By Matt Skoufalos
With cautious optimism, Haddon Heights broke the ice on a public discussion about allowing alcohol sales within its limits.
About 75 residents of the historically dry town gathered in its municipal building Wednesday night to address the borough council on the subject.
For a town that has considered this question several times through the years, the biggest concerns seemed to center on protecting existing restaurants as much as the borough itself from any unintended consequences.
Support across generations
Resident Kevin Murphy expressed concerns that once awarded a liquor license could be sold off later, possibly circumventing the wishes of the community.
“Say the business owner that has the license goes out of business and wants to sell,” Murphy asked. “What prevents the stipulations from changing?”
Bill Troutman, a Haddon Heights resident since 1950, said that although he’s seen the question of liquor licensing defeated multiple times in his day, “what is happening here is a good idea.
“But I would like to see more of the restaurants being able to participate,” Troutman added.
Resident Edward Finnegan said he’d be in favor of licensing if it brought in a brew pub or similar establishment that could attract new business to town.
However, population restrictions would limit the borough of 7,600 to just two licenses, potentially harming existing restaurant businesses: Anthony’s Creative Italian Cuisine, Elements Café, and Kunkel’s Seafood and Steakhouse.
“I see no point to selling two licenses to three restaurants,” Finnegan said. “We have B.Y.O.B.’s and people drink in them now,” Finnegan said.
The council even heard from former Haddon Heights Mayor August Longo.
“I have enjoyed a dry town for years and years,” Longo told the body, but added that as long as licensing were restricted to “cocktails at dinner” and not bars or liquor stores, “I think I could support that.”
Then, and more to the point, Longo concluded:
“The revenue that Haddon Heights would gain from issuing these licenses, I would like to see go to property tax relief, and not for any other purpose.”
When asked after the meeting what has changed in the borough to make it a place where liquor licenses would be welcomed, Longo told NJ Pen that the difference for him is the potential business impact.
“We have some key restaurants in town, family owned restaurants, that the people that do frequent,” Longo said. “I think it’s a nice convenience as long as it is restricted to that type of situation.”
Opening up the bidding for liquor licenses does mean that the borough could accept a high bid from a business owner who doesn’t currently operate in town, which Longo said “is a very real fear.
“I would really be concerned if that did happen because we have a couple of real nice restaurants in town,” the former mayor said. “I would like to see it stay with the local families.”
A promise to ‘at least talk about it’
Borough solicitor Albert Olizi cautioned that all the considerations are “preliminary,” and that he hasn’t done a great deal of research into the more technical aspects of crafting an alcohol ordinance.
“Every once in a while this comes up,” Olizi said after the meeting.
“We made a promise that we would at least talk about it, and we’re talking about it,” he said. “I don’t want to spend a lot of time and a lot of the town’s money going into things if the town doesn’t want to do it.”
Olizi said that any change to the borough code would have to be carefully worded, but added that the ability of the government to restrict the application of that law would have its limits once passed.
“If it’s going to be done, I recommend it being done as tight as possible so that if there’s going to be change, [business owners]have to come to council for the change, not the planning and zoning board,” he said.
Councilman Richard DiRenzo echoed those sentiments.
“Keep it small,” DiRenzo said. “Address the needs of the businesses that are existing in the town. I don’t want any big-box businesses. I don’t want any liquor stores.”
DiRenzo also issued a caveat to those who expected liquor licenses would yield a cash windfall to offset their property taxes.
“You probably wouldn’t see anything for a year or two,” he said. “We’ve got to keep the budget steady. This is piggy bank money, as I call it.”
“Every year we run as close to the vest as possible, but because of pensions and benefits and salaries, you’re always looking at that wall at the end of the year,” he said.
More discussion to follow
After the meeting, Council President Kathryn Lange pointed out that elected officials haven’t yet had any formal talks on the subject at all.
“I think what I heard [tonight]is that people like the hometown atmosphere [of Haddon Heights],” Lange said. “They like the B.Y.O. situation,” she said.
Lange pointed out that the borough is surrounded by communities where alcohol sales are permitted, and that residents can bring their own drinks to dinner in town, or buy a bottle at a restaurant that participates in the state winery affiliate program.
“I don’t know that there’s a pent-up need for it,” she said.
Lange also noted that although some local business people were in attendance, none of them spoke on the record, which she would have preferred.
“I think if we’re making a move to benefit them as well as the town, it would have been helpful to me to hear what they have to say,” she said.
“We could go to them personally, but it is good for everybody to hear everything at the same time.”
Mayor Edward Forte said that he was pleased by the turnout, but added that he really didn’t have “a pulse yet” on the issue. He urged residents to continue to contact him with their thoughts.
“We had 10 people go [up to speak],” Forte said. “Is that the whole opinion of the whole town? Probably not. I think there’s a little more to do.
“The dialogue is still open,” he said.
For remarks from Haddon Heights restaurateurs, read our companion piece.