Those in support of lifting Needham’s dry status talked Tuesday evening about the convenience of having wine and beer sold in town and the potential for bringing dollars now spent out of town back to Needham. But those who were against changing the law argued that allowing retail sales of alcohol would just make it easier for local youth to get their hands on these beverages, calling the matter “a public health issue.”
About 75 people attended the selectmen’s public hearing on whether to allow retail sale of alcohol in town—the purchase of wine, beer and possibly liquor for consumption off-site. This type of business, referred to as a “package store,” has not been allowed in Needham for more than 75 years.
The town does allow the sale of alcohol in restaurants with more than 100 seats, and one-day licenses can be obtained for events where alcohol will be served on-site.
For more than an hour on Tuesday, Dec. 6, residents lined up at the microphone inside the to speak on the issue. Twenty people spoke against changing the law, while 13 people spoke in favor of the change. Two said they were undecided. Residents ranged from a 17-year-old student who didn’t feel the town needed package stores to an 85-year-old mother of one speaker, who told him before the meeting that “It’s about time” Needham changed the law.
Before the public comment portion, Council of Economic Advisors member Elizabeth Grimes reviewed the potential economic benefits of allowing alcohol sales in Needham, noting that it was difficult to collect exact numbers on the subject. She referenced the Food Marketing Institute’s annual retail purchase survey, which found that the average U.S. household with an annual income of $65,000 to $75,000 spends about $500 per year on alcohol and that alcohol makes up about 6 percent of the average American’s food budget.
She also estimated that Needham could see about $2,500 annually in additional license fees for alcohol sales. However, others later argued that any increase in fees would likely be offset by the cost of administering those licenses and additional police monitoring.
Grimes also said the council felt that allowing more store types could help fill up the vacant storefronts in downtown Needham, creating a more vibrant downtown and encouraging people to shop locally.
Chief Phil Droney gave the law enforcement perspective, saying the change "will have an impact on the police department.” In particular, he was concerned about increased accessibility for juveniles and an already prevalent underage drinking problem in Needham and surrounding towns.
Maryalice Stamer, director of school health services for the , said she was concerned about increasing access to alcohol for local kids and urged the town “to hold the health and safety of children as the top priority.”
Webster Street resident Rich Mullen said that he was concerned about substance abuse among local youth and that “increasing the availability and access to alcohol seems like that would increase the probability that they [youth] would be able to start down the path of some of the problems associated with it."
“That doesn’t seem like something our community should be working toward,” he said.
Great Plain Avenue resident Jennifer Kirby referenced the 2010 MetroWest Adolescent Health Survey, in which about 15 percent of the 772 Needham seventh and eighth graders surveyed admitted to drinking alcohol regularly and 23 percent of the 1,326 high school students surveyed admitted to binge drinking within the past month.
Copies of the survey and other handouts on the issue of underage drinking were available in the back of the room.
Kirby called changing the alcohol sales law “a foreseeable risk” and said it could lead to the possibility of allowing other types of business in the future such as gun shops, check cashing places and adult entertainment.
Other opponents to changing the law said allowing alcohol sales would change the town’s atmosphere and that part of the reason they had moved to Needham was because it was a dry town.
Several people said that changing the law would go against the efforts of the which has been working to raise awareness of substance abuse issues among kids.
“Needham has a long list of great things to offer to our residents and to the surrounding communities. Let’s make keeping kids safe at the top of that list,” Jarvis Circle resident Cathy Freedberg said.
But others said that keeping package stores out of Needham would not prevent substance abuse and that kids would likely still go out of town to purchase alcohol, concerned about being identified here in town.
Central Avenue resident Jeff Heller, who has raised three children in Needham, said it was more important for parents to model appropriate alcohol use at home and to talk to their children about the issues of substance abuse rather than relying on the ban to keep alcohol away from their kids.
“If limiting the sale of alcohol in Needham was effective at helping our children, then I would say, what are the statistics?” Heller said. “Let’s look at the research. Are we any different than any other community because access is different?”
Greendale Avenue resident Carol Urwitz noted that the United States’ Prohibition did not necessarily prevent people from drinking and said that it would be better for parents to teach their children about responsible drinking than to try to keep these stores away from them.
“If we want resilient children, we have to teach them that there are choices to be made out there,” she said. “I think we’re being misguided and that we’re putting a Band-Aid on a much bigger problem, and I don’t even think the Band-Aid’s going to stay on.”
Proponents said they would like to see vacant storefronts filled with active businesses and that having wine and beer shops in town would encourage shoppers to spend at other nearby businesses rather than running those errands together in a neighboring town.
Selectmen did not debate the issue on Tuesday but said they would be discussing it at a later meeting. If the board decides to go forward with recommending a law change, there would still be much opportunity for public debate.
Town counsel David Tobin said the town could proceed in one of two ways. Needham could place a question on the local ballot in a state election by a petition signed by 10 percent of the town’s registered voters. The question would have to be passed at three consecutive elections to become law, but after the first approval, the town could begin issuing licenses.
Needham also could change the law through a home rule petition, which is the process by which the town authorized beer and wine to be served at restaurants with more than 100 seats. The issue would be voted on at a Town Meeting and would then go to the state legislature for review. Proponents could also request that the issue go to a ballot vote in town if approved by the state, Tobin said.
The home rule petition option would allow the town to tailor the language of the law to meet Needham’s specific needs, Tobin noted.
Based on a state formula, Needham would be allowed to have six package store licenses and 26 licenses for on-premises consumption, Tobin said.