NORTH ADAMS -- A city beer and wine retailer is one step closer to acquiring a full liquor license.
The Public Safety Committee on Tuesday voted narrowly to recommend that the City Council allow Vins et Viandes to submit a home rule petition to the state Legislature.
After two meetings and lengthy discussion that included V&V representatives and competing liquor store owners, the committee on Tuesday voted 2-1 on Tuesday in favor of the recommendation. If the council approves, V&V's license application will be taken up by the state.
The city currently has four off-premise, or package store, liquor licenses -- already one more than the state allows for a city under 15,000 people. Therefore, V&V needs to petition the state for a fifth license.
Tuesday's debate largely echoed those of past discussions, including a June 23 meeting of the committee.
The four liquor stores that currently have liquor licenses -- Draper's Wine and Spirits, West Package and Variety Store, Whitney's Beverage Shop and River Street Package Store -- have argued that the state's quota of one license per 5,000 people recently was reaffirmed by the Legislature and should be respected.
The representatives of V&V have insisted that the business is a destination in North Adams, spurring economic development and bringing people downtown. It is located in the Steeple City Plaza on American Legion Drive, and its representatives argue requesting an additional license is a common practice.
Bonnie Whitney of Whitney's Beverage Shop argued that V&V was recently cited for selling alcohol to an underage person. The issue was heard before the city license board on Tuesday and V&V was ordered to close for one day on Aug. 24 as a penalty.
"While it's been pointed out that this is a first offense, this business has not even been in business for a year," Whitney said. "This has been the first sting that they experienced and they have already failed. I mean, do we continue?"
But board Chairman Keith Bona argued that the violation shouldn't keep V&V from applying for the license, nor should it automatically result in a loss of license for an existing liquor license -- Draper's was also cited in the same operation.
"Employees can make mistakes," Bona said.
Merrigan also asked why V&V isn't willing to purchase a license from another liquor store. At least two of the stores have been openly marketed for sale, including Whitney's Beverage Shop.
F. Sydney Smithers, an attorney representing V&V, told the committee that the asking price for the license -- reportedly more than $100,000 -- is far beyond "fair market value."
Councilor Kate Merrigan was the single vote against recommending the home rule petition to the council, but she acknowledged it was a complex issue and said she could change her mind when the council takes it up on Sept. 26.
"At this point, I don't feel totally convinced that there's a strong enough need for us to pursue a home petition," Merrigan said, adding that she hopes V&V can come to an agreement on the sale of an existing license.
Councilors Bona and Benjamin Lamb both voted to recommend the petition.
"The ultimate decision is the state's, and I think as a council we need to put this forward and put it into the state's hands," Lamb said. "Ultimately it's not the city's decision to make a choice on this."
Lamb also addressed concerns regarding public safety raised by opposing liquor store owners.
"I come from a family of alcoholism. I understand that danger, that issue as a whole. I grew up with it, I've lived with it my whole life. I don't see liquor as a necessity," Lamb said. "This really goes to purely the logistics of the way that this [process] works."
Bona also explained his vote, and denied that the committee was showing favoritism to a bigger business. The store is owned by First Hartford Realty Corp., which also owns the plaza itself.
"I feel like I advocate pro-business, and I have a hard time denying the expansion and growth of businesses as long as they are not causing a public safety issue," Bona said. "If people feel so strongly that having an additional liquor store causes alcoholism or is going to cause more people to drink and drive, then in all seriousness, then we should be saying ‘Why do we have any?' "
Both Lamb and Bona acknowledged that the vote could set the precedent for more stores to come forward seeking a home rule petition for an additional liquor license.
"If I'm going to vote this way on this one, I'm going to vote this way on the next one," Lamb said.
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