© The Stoneham Independent

STONEHAM, MA - Local citizens swiftly okayed a Town Meeting initiative aimed at reducing Stoneham's minimum restaurant seating requirement to 35 persons for beer and wine licenses.

During a Special Town Meeting on Monday night, a sparse crowd of voters passed without major debate Article 1, in which local officials sought permission to petition the state Legislature for relief from Stoneham's current 50-seat requirement for liquor licenses.

With the proposal enjoying the unanimous backing of the Finance and Advisory Board, Selectmen Chair Anthony Wilson explained the legislation was crafted at the request of Town Planner Erin Wortman, who believes the current seating rules are too burdensome for a community with so many small commercial storefronts.

"There are a number of people who wanted to come to town and open a business, for example a brunch location, and they wanted to be able to serve mimosas to [attract more customers]," said Wilson. "This is to allow more people to populate our buildings and open businesses."

The sole citizen to address Article 1, Beacon Street resident Darin Leahy wanted to be sure the reduction in seating was the only aspect of local liquor license regulations being changed. In particular, the Town Meeting attendee inquired as to other checks and balances remained that were enacted years ago to prevent Stoneham from becoming a bar-type atmosphere.

"There's a lot more to this bylaw that [the 50 seat requirement]. Did we preserve rules like food must be served and that people can't be standing [around and drinking?]" he asked.

"The only thing this does is lower the seating threshold to be eligible for applying for a beer and wine license," Wortman responded. "It is still required for food to be consumed with alcohol service and no barrooms are allowed in town."

In May, the liquor license amendment was supposed to be acted upon during the Annual Town Meeting, but due to an oversight, the matter was pitched as a general bylaw change instead of as a home rule petition that must be acted upon by Beacon Hill pols.

As a result of those technical issues, the Board of Selectmen asked the matter to be indefinitely postponed at the May assembly.

Town officials were first asked to consider the rules change towards the close of 2017, when Wortman notified the selectmen about a number of conversations she had recently had with Stoneham Square merchants.

According to several established restaurant owners, the existing standard makes it extremely difficult for them to invest in their properties, as most kinds of building alterations would result in a decline in seating capacity.

Wortman subsequently approached a number of other commercial landlords, many of whom were trying to find a permanent tenant for smaller storefronts in and around Stoneham Square. Those business interests also insisted a reduction to the minimum seating requirements would be huge for properties that are constantly turning over.

As of a few months ago, Stoneham, unlike many of its immediate neighbors, had no shortage of available liquor licenses to issue. In fact, when the topic of the rules change was first endorsed by the Board of Selectmen, the elected officials had 11 on-premise consumption permits, including five which were strictly for beer and wine service.

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