LOWER MAKEFIELD >> A campaign will get underway later this month in the township to place a “wet versus dry” referendum on the April primary ballot.
State Senator Steve Santarsiero, State Rep. Perry Warren and Lower Makefield grocer Jim McCaffrey announced the effort during a Friday afternoon press conference at DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies in Edgewood Village.
Between Jan. 28 and Feb. 18, petitioners will be going door to door collecting signatures asking eligible voters for their approval to place a simple question on the ballot asking whether or not they want to over turn a 60 year old ban on the sale of spirits, wine and beer.
In addition, signatures will be collected at three township businesses - McCaffrey’s, DeLorenzos and Shady Brook Farm.
Residents interested in helping to circulate petitions are invited to attend an informational meeting on Sunday, Jan. 26 beginning at 2 p.m. at McCaffrey's Market (upstairs meeting room).
Since 1949 when voters approved a referendum to ban the sale of alcohol in the township, restaurants and eateries here have not been allowed to sell alcoholic beverages.
“It has created a situation where restaurants cannot sell you a glass of wine or a glass of beer,” said Santarsiero. “It has created a situation where there are no brewpubs here as there are in neighboring Yardley Borough. There are no pubs here as there are in neighboring Newtown,” said Santarsiero.
“We are here today to announce a process that will give the people of Lower Makefield a choice,” said Santarsiero. “It’s your town. It should be your choice as to whether or not this ban continues.”
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 noteably 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 the 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.
Lower Makefield business leaders have twice before attempted to place a referendum on the ballot, but both times have fallen short on securing the required number of signatures.
Under a new law signed by Governor Wolf last summer, the required number of signatures is now capped at 500 making it much more likely 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 5200 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.
Santarsiero and Warren were instrumental in amending the state’s liquor laws last year that lowered the number of signatures required.
“I’m pleased that the referendum will be held this year because it’s a Presidential and Congressional election,” said Warren. “Voters will turn out to vote on whether they wish to make this change. It’s up to the residents of Lower Makefield Township to determine what they want to do. The democratic process is working here in Lower Makefield Township and we are pleased we were able to help facilitate that at the state level.”
McCaffrey, representing the Lower Makefield Business Association, commended the lawmakers for making the process easier. “In the past we had a pretty tremendous task” in terms of the number of signatures that had to be collected.
“As Steve and Perry pointed out, it should be in the hands of the residents to make their choice,” said McCaffrey, who directed residents to a new website - www.yourtownyourchoice.com - which spells out the issues related to the referendum “and helps residents to know what the impact will be and what the benefits will be.”
Business owners, like McCaffrey, argue that lifting the ban will benefit the township economically, particularly in the commercially-developing Edgewood Village area of the township, which has seen a resurgence in new businesses and eating establishments from the redevelopment of the historic crossroads village and the Flowers property.
Matt Longo, the owner/operator of DeLorenzo’s, said he supports passage of a referendum and the synergies it could create in the local business community.
While DeLorenzo's would not be seeking a liquor license, he said as a local resident who now lives in Edgewood Village he’s excited by the possibilities passage of the referendum could bring to his neighborhood and to his restaurant.
“I bought into the Edgewood Village concept. This is just another piece of the puzzle that will bring new energy to this area,” he said.
Lower Makefield Supervisor John Lewis, a long time supporter of passage of a referendum, describes the township as “a vibrant, exciting and affluent community," but adds, "the restaurant choices are fairly limited.
"Having the ability to get a liquor license could bring in more unique dining experiences that would fit the demographics of the community and the area and offer more choice in dining options," he said.
“And from a grocery store perspective, the Giant in Morrisville and the McCaffrey’s in Newtown sell beer and wine,” said Lewis. “We have two State Stores, but if you like beer you have to go somewhere else. Again, it’s giving our residents more choices.”
If the latest campaign is successful in getting the question on a future ballot and voters subsequently approve the referendum, don’t look for things to change overnight.
It will be quite some time before restaurants would be able to secure licenses from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to start selling alcoholic beverages at their establishments.
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, are very costly 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 Shady Brook Farm owner Dave 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 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, allowing “dry” municipalities to issue special liquor licenses to manufacturers, such as breweries, limited distilleries and limited wineries.
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 Sen. Santarsiero and State Rep. Warren, 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,” asked Santarsiero. “The idea is 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.