Momentum is gathering in Natick to change rules for selling alcoholic beverages at restaurants and other establishments in an effort to support existing businesses, encourage new ones to set up shop, and allow for new business models. While we thought Wednesday’s Select Board public hearing on the topic might bring out residents and businesses in support of such change, the focus largely wound up being on the possible public health impacts of having fewer license restrictions (see Natick Pegasus recording just before the 1-hour mark).
Shortly after the hearing opened, Board Chair Paul Joseph introduced Katie Sugarman of Natick 180, a town coalition focused on addiction education, prevention, and recovery. The outfit shared a substantial memo (embedded below) in response to proposed changes, such as allowing pitchers of beer to be served and doing away with a rule that no more than 35% of restaurant sales come from booze. The memo incorporates findings from public health research as well as from what other communities are doing.
Sugarman highlighted points from the memo during the hearing, including a recommendation that if pitchers are sold, the beer shouldn’t cost less than if you buy it by the glass or bottle, and that if the 35% figure is nixed that establishments still be required to share annual revenue breakdowns in order to track trends.
Among other things, Sugarman recommended that the town not make too many moves at once, and rather phase in changes so that data can be collected and analyzed. For example, if the town allowed a higher percentage of revenue to come from alcohol sales, it would want to see whether any correlation surfaced between that and alcohol-related incidents in the police logs.
Sugarman said she appreciates some of the Alcohol Policy Working Group’s initial proposals, including a requirement for in-person responsibility and intervention training for servers (something that proved difficult during the peak of the pandemic) and strict and escalating penalties for establishment violations.
She wrapped up her comments with a suggestion to “think about these as not just individual policy changes but how they all could collectively impact the community norms around drinking culture.”
The board discussed the proposed changes among itself, and no members of the public chimed in—hey, it’s still summer. The public hearing will continue in weeks to come, though, so as Joseph said, the public discussion on this has only begun. The Board could vote for some changes along the way, but public discussion will continue.
Joseph said the holy grail deliverable for the working group was to consolidate five separate documents for on-premises consumption into one comprehensive policy. Board direction and public input will guide the contents of that policy.
As discussions have gone on, issues outside the focus of on-premises consumption policy have arisen as well and could be addressed by the town in any number of ways, including a mix of Select Board, home rule, and Town Meeting approvals.
There is some urgency to making changes, as the town has been known to have lost out on businesses moving here. With the recent go-ahead for new buildings in town that include restaurants space, Natick is looking to welcome businesses that might be stymied by current policies.
“There is a timeliness aspect to this in terms of economic development, but as we’ve been saying, we do want to do it in a responsible manner,” Joseph said.
To that point, Hickey said he hopes the Board will focus on the handful of issues related to alcohol policy that have kicked around for years, and not get caught up in side issues that could bog down approvals.
Jospeh suggested a next step would be coming back with a proposed policy document to which the Board can respond. The public hearing will continue at the next Select Board meeting, slated for Sept. 7.
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