A bill before the state legislature that would give Braintree more liquor licenses was recently modified so that it no longer targets the permits to the Squares and Weymouth Landing and instead caps the size of eligible restaurants.
Local officials say that the change, though not what was first envisioned by Mayor Joseph Sullivan, will not get in the way of the goal of spurring small business development.
But the addition of two licenses to the initial proposal concerns some independent restaurant owners, who argue that Braintree already has a glut of chains and that the extras will dilute the value of their licenses.
Sullivan's home rule petition originally allotted six licenses – two for each area targeted for development – with a goal of revitalization "by creating a destination for customers, which in turn attracts other businesses," he wrote in a letter to the Town Council last June.
The council approved Sullivan's language in August 2011 and it has been working its way through the legislature since. A year later, the bill, sponsored by Rep. Mark Cusack, D-Braintree, was changed by the Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee.
That committee imposed a 75-seat limit for the licenses rather than the geographic targeting and also made the request eight instead of six. It is a non-controversial bill and should pass easily through the Senate, Cusack said, adding that despite the changes, it will still help entrepreneurs in Braintree.
"This will allow us to provide licenses to small businesses in the Squares and the Landing as we try to revitalize those areas," Cusack said.
Sullivan said that even with the changes it is a step forward for development. "It's not exactly what I was looking for, but it's acceptable," he said.
Most restaurants in Braintree with alcohol licenses have a capacity above 75 people, and the majority of those are chains, with a few exceptions, such as Maria's Restaurant, Granite Grill and El Sarape. Nearly every restaurant that holds 75 or less is an independent business.
For years, Braintree officials have expressed frustration with the increasing number of alcohol licenses held at the South Shore Plaza, which recently hit double digits. Yet the parameters of the updated special legislation do not guarantee that one or more of the licenses will not end up at the Plaza.
Just this week, for instance, a sushi restaurant with a 75-person capacity applied for a wine & malt license at the mall. Officials questioned the proposal, citing the restaurant's open floor plan, and it was withdrawn.
According to Massachusetts law, the town's license board must take into consideration the public need for a license at a particular location and the number already existing there, but it cannot arbitrarily deny applications based on geography without site-specific legal language attached to the licenses.
Still, based on the updated bill, it is highly unlikely that any of the eight licenses will end up at the Plaza, Sen. John F. Keenan, D-Quincy, said. He said that the timing of re-development efforts happening in the Landing and the Squares means that they should go where they will most benefit small businesses.
"[The legislature] wants to reach the same goal by a different route," Chief of Staff and Operations Peter Morin said. He added the town is also not under any compulsion to award the extra licenses.
"It should be noted," Sen. Brian A. Joyce, D-Milton, said in a statement, "that home rule petitions typically include language to allow the Legislature to tweak the proposed legislation as long as it still accomplishes the local municipality’s intent, which I hope this does."
According to several local officials, Theodore C. Speliotis, House Chair of the consumer committee, does not support liquor license legislation that targets certain geographic areas. For state Sen. Robert Hedlund, R-Weymouth, that is bothersome because it demonstrates a significant problem with Massachusetts liquor law.
"There's no continuity in the law," Hedlund said. "It points to the schizophrenic manner in which we handle liquor law and regulation."
In the past, other towns have benefited from site-specific legislation, Hedlund said. Hingham, for instance, added licenses for the Derby Street Shoppes and the Shipyard. Dedham did the same for Legacy Place and Foxborough for Patriot's Place.
Hedlund also said he had a problem with the legislation as the owner of Four Square in Weymouth Landing.
"No one likes to see an infusion in your community, because it devalues the [license] you have," Hedlund said.
Arthur Kyranis, owner of Maria's in East Braintree, also said he was concerned about the additional licenses diluting the existing marketplace. Over the past three decades, Kyranis said he has seen the town add dozens of licenses.
"The population hasn’t adjusted that much," Kyranis said. "It’s tougher and tougher for the small businessman, just in general. You get squeezed.”
The mayor, in his letter to the Town Council last summer, argued against the idea that the licenses should be such an in-demand commodity.
"Historically," Sullivan wrote, "these licenses have all been issued, making an available liquor license in our Town something rare and valuable and often commanding a high price in a private transfer transaction."
A town's total number of alcohol licenses is determined in Massachusetts by its population as recorded every 10 years by the U.S Census, unless the legislature approves more.
Last summer, Braintree officials learned that the town had gained six alcohol licenses because it grew in population by nearly 2,000 residents, to 35,744, from 2000 to 2010. As of this week, there were no all-alcohol restaurant licenses available and two wine & malt licenses available.
The revised bill will likely pass the Senate because home rule petitions are vetted by the town before they hit Beacon Hill and are rarely blocked, Hedlund said.
Town Council President Charles Kokoros was one of those who reviewed the original bill, and who voted for it last year. He favors the updated version as well. It may actually help in an unexpected way, Kokoros said, if a small business person wants to open a restaurant in Braintree outside of the Plaza, Landing and Squares.
"Left as is, if someone had a dream and an idea to open up a restaurant, they would be in a very difficult situation having to purchase an existing liquor license at $175,000 to $250,000 as they have sold in the past," he said.
“We have been slammed with chain restaurants that have gobbled up liquor licenses over the years, making it almost impossible for a small business person to get into the restaurant business.”
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