LOWER MAKEFIELD >> Since 1949 when voters approved a referendum banning the sale of alcohol in the township, restaurants and eateries here have not been allowed to sell alcoholic beverages.
That could change under a new law - Act 48 of 2019 (HB 423) - signed by Governor Tom Wolf in early July that makes it easier to place a dry vs. wet question on the ballot in Pennsylvania.
Lower Makefield business leaders, led by the owners of Shady Brook Farm, McCaffrey’s Food Markets and township restaurants, have twice since 2015 attempted to place a referendum on the ballot, but both times have fallen short on securing the required number of signatures.
Under the new law signed by Governor Wolf, the required number of signatures is now capped at 500 making it much more likely the next time the businesses try they’ll be successful.
Under the previous law, before a referendum could be placed on the ballot, a petition with a number of signatures equal to at least 25 percent of the highest vote cast for any office in that municipality in the preceding general election was required to be filed with the local board of elections.
In Lower Makefield that equated to between 2800 and 4000 signatures that were required for ballot placement and had to be collected during a three week period in the middle of winter, which made the task challenging.
“This is good news,” said Dave Fleming Jr. of Shady Brook Farm, a member of the business group. “This changes the game for us to be able to get this on the ballot and finally give our community an opportunity to vote on it. Our goal has always been to get the question on the ballot and let everyone decide.”
Grocery store owner Jim McCaffrey Sr. agreed. “It’s good news,” he said of the change. “If it’s just 500 signatures, I could get that in my own store,” he said. “It still has to go on the ballot and people would still need to approve it. But we’re optimistic. We had a survey done and basically 72 percent of the voters polled said they would vote for it. That’s overwhelming.”
The business owners said they see the effort as worth the investment and the effort, not just for the business community but for the township and its residents.
They argue that lifting the ban will benefit the township economically, particularly in the Office/Research zone and in the commercially-developing Edgewood Village area of the township, which is seeing a resurgence in new businesses and eating establishments from the redevelopment of the historic crossroads village and the Flowers property.
“From an economic development standpoint it’s important for us to be able to do this,” said Fleming in 2018, noting that Edgewood village is primed for some good eateries that would benefit from a liquor license, including DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies.
That area, he said, with its mixed-use commercial and residential zoning, is an ideal area “to create a centerpiece for Lower Makefield. Having restaurants, having a pub would be great. I would love to see what the community thinks about that.”
Another place that would benefit is the proposed Prickett mixed use development project now being eyed for office-research zoned land across from Shady Brook Farm. That project proposes several higher-end restaurants that would benefit from the change.
“This would open the door to possibly a nice hotel and some high-end restaurants,” said McCaffrey, referencing the OR-zoned Prickett and Capstone properties on Stony Hill Road. “It’s all around us,” he said of liquor- licensed establishments. “Why should we give up the business to neighboring towns? I think it would be good for this township.”
Fleming said there’s also an issue of fairness, pointing to the fact that the township’s municipally-owned golf course has an exemption to sell alcoholic beverages, yet the township’s restaurants don’t have that same opportunity, and that two of the township’s supermarkets are allowed to have State Store establishments operating on their premises selling bottled liquor products.
He even points a finger inward, noting that Shady Brook holds a limited winery exception that allows it to operate The Stone’s Throw, where guests can enjoy locally-brewed craft beer, Rose Bank wines made in Newtown and hand-crafted cocktails featuring Pennsylvania-distilled spirits and hard ciders.
“It would be great to spread that out and have a lot of diversity and make it fair for everybody,” said Fleming.
Under the changes to the law, if the group is successful in getting the question on a future ballot and voters approve the referendum, Fleming said things wouldn’t change overnight.
It will be quite some time before restaurants will be able to secure licenses from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to start selling alcoholic beverages at their establishments, said Fleming.
Based on the township’s population, the municipality is entitled to up to 11 licenses, but they won’t be newly-issued ones. They will have to be secured from other municipalities through transfer agreements, which take time and are each subject to approval by the Lower Makefield Board of Supervisors.
“It’s going to take creative business people to find the licenses available and to bring that opportunity here,” said Fleming. “And those licenses will be limited to those commercial districts where it is allowed. It’s not going to change what the community is, but it will give businesses an opportunity they don’t have today.”
The next time the business group could consider a referendum would be this November. The new law takes effect 60 days from the date it was signed.
The new law was proposed by State Rep. Jesse Topper (R-Bedford/Franklin/Fulton) to close a loophole in the updated liquor laws and to give voters more say in their community.
In addition to changing the number of signatures required to place a referendum on the ballot, Act 48 of 2019, formerly House Bill 423, allows county elections offices to put referendum questions on the ballot to authorize “dry” municipalities to issue special liquor licenses to manufacturers, such as breweries, limited distilleries and limited wineries.
“I want to thank all members of the General Assembly for recognizing the value of my bill as they approved this legislation unanimously throughout the legislative process,” Topper said.
Included in recently passed updates to the Commonwealth’s liquor laws, is a provision that allows exemptions in local communities to authorize specific licenses to manufacturers, such as brewpubs, in what are known as dry municipalities.
“Since then, we have witnessed a rise in the number of establishments that sell and serve alcohol operating in dry municipalities through a loophole created in the liquor law updates,” Topper said. “My bill closes this loophole and allows local residents to vote on a ballot question to explicitly opt-in or opt-out of allowing on-premise sales for manufacturers.”
About 25 percent of the state’s municipalities have chosen to ban the sale of alcohol in one form or another. The all-or-nothing question voters must answer doesn’t fit for all dry municipalities. Topper’s legislation would create a referendum to give voters the choice to allow their municipality to stay completely dry, allow limited sales or convert to wet.
Topper’s bill was amended by the Senate Law and Justice Committee to require a flat 500 signatures for a ballot referendum for a municipality to change from dry to wet, or vice versa.
The amendment, which was pushed through with the help of State Senator Steve Santarsiero of Lower Makefield, is limited to counties that have a population of between 500,000 and 799,999, which Bucks County qualifies.
“Why should it be more onerous for a referendum to get on the ballot than a candidate,” he asked. “The idea is to let the voters decide. This is just a procedural mechanism to get the question on the ballot. From my perspective, it made sense to make it easier to get the question on the ballot and then let people decide what they want to do.”
Surprisingly Lower Makefield, which sits on the banks of the Delaware River and is bisected by Interstate 295, is not alone in Pennsylvania in its dry status. There are hundreds of other municipalities in the Commonwealth that limit, in whole or in part, the sale of alcohol.
Today, Lower Makefield is the only municipality in Bucks and Montgomery counties that bans alcohol sales, although over the years township leaders have allowed a number of exemptions, most notably for its municipally-owned golf course - Makefield Highlands on Woodside Road - which is permitted to serve alcoholic beverages.
Under state law, State Stores are also allowed to operate and sell bottled liquor inside two of the township’s grocery stores, and Shady Brook Farm has a limited license to sell Pennsylvania-produced wine and beer by them glass at its farm market cafe on Stony Hill Road in addition to selling bottles of its Rose Bank Wine to carry out.
But if you’re looking have a drink with your meal at one of the township’s restaurants, like Carlucci’s, Villa Rosa, Christine’s or DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies, you’re out of luck unless, of course, you bring your own or voters pass a referendum changing the township’s dry status.