Beer, wine soon to be on tap in Maryland’s last dry town -- Gazette.Net


After learning that Randy and Christine Anderson planned to be among the first business owners in Damascus to apply for a newly available license to sell alcohol, some patrons threatened not to come back to the Music Cafe.

That was the reaction on Nov. 6 — the night voters approved a referendum to allow the sale of beer and light wine at certain restaurants in town.

Now, however, Christine says some have changed their minds after learning that the restaurant intends to maintain its family atmosphere, even while selling alcohol.

“We don’t want to turn into a bar,” she said.

Damascus is currently the state’s last dry town, which prohibits the sale of alcohol. The passage of a referendum Nov. 6 to allow such sales came after 80 years of challenges to the restriction.

“We didn’t think [the referendum] was going to pass,” Anderson said. “People were like, ‘Congratulations, I can’t wait to have a beer here with my reuben [sandwich].’”

Voters in Montgomery County’s 12th electoral district, which includes Damascus, cast 6,754 votes for the referendum, accounting for more than 66 percent of ballots, according to unofficial results. Official results are scheduled to be available Nov. 19.

The passage of the referendum allows sit-down restaurants and hotels to apply for licenses to sell beer and light wine in the town beginning Dec. 19.

In April, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill calling for a referendum on the issue. Montgomery County’s legislative District 14 delegation, which represents Damascus, decided to sponsor the bill after receiving numerous requests from residents.

A similar bill was passed by state lawmakers and signed into law in 1996, but was later rejected in a referendum vote.

“I think it’s great,” Laurie Flemming, 48, of Damascus said of this year’s results. “I think that the people of Damascus are tired of not having good restaurants. Hopefully, [now] there will be a place where we can sit down and have a nice drink with dinner.”

Under the law, restaurants in the town looking to sell alcoholic beverages have to apply for a Class H liquor license and be approved by the Montgomery County Board of License Commissioners, which regulates the sale and distribution of alcohol in the county. A Class H license allows hotels and sit-down restaurants to sell beer and light wine from 9 a.m.-1 a.m. from Monday through Saturday, and from 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sundays, according to the liquor board’s website

License holders pay $400 annually.

Anderson, who supported the passage and held a 36-hour music marathon Nov. 2-4 to raise awareness about the referendum, said she and her husband plan to start putting their application together sometime this week.

“We’re excited,” she said. “I think this is going to be a positive thing for the community.”

As part of the new law, licenses cannot be issued to any restaurant in the town where pool tables, billiard tables, shuffleboards, dart boards, video games, pinball machines or recreational devices are used.

Anderson said she and her husband are exploring several changes to the cafe, including expanding its menu on weekends. Currently, the cafe serves sandwiches, salads, soup and French bread pizza.

Tina Kiima, owner of New York J&P Pizza in Damascus, said she also plans to apply for a license when the law takes effect.

“We were hoping that it would pass because a lot of people ask for it,” she said.

However, the referendum faced some opposition, mainly from the Women Christian Temperance Union, which works to educate communities about the dangers of alcohol and drugs.

“We believe that it’s a shame that [the referendum] passed,” said Bunny Galladora, state president of the Temperance Union. “And when people voted whether knowingly or unknowingly they voted for the negative effects that come with it.”

Galladora said that the introduction of alcohol into the town could result in more alcohol-related car crashes and an increased crime rate.

At this time, Galladora said, the Temperance Union has no plans to protest that new law or any of the businesses applying for licenses. But, she said they would be willing to help if residents decided to organize an effort to go back to the ban.

The process to become approved for a county license includes state mandated training of business staff on rules and regulations, routine inspections by a county liquor inspector and a public hearing with the county Board of License Commissioners, said Kathie Durbin, a division chief with the department of liquor control. The majority of the five-member board must approve the application for the business to receive the license.

“They have to make sure that they have proof of identity, they have to be fingerprinted, they have to have [certain permits] from the health department. ... It’s not an easy thing to do because you have to change your business plan a bit,” she said. “The main thing we check for is that they have a responsible plan, it’s a great responsibility.”

At this time, about 1,000 establishments — at 20 different license classes — are licensed in the county, Durbin said. Depending on hearing schedules and whether all requirements for approval have been fulfilled, businesses in the town could be serving alcohol a month after the law takes effect, Durbin said.