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Somerville's Liquor License Home Rule Petition Cut Down by State

Somerville will likely get 10 new liquor licenses, plus 2 more designated for Assembly Square, but the state legislature decided to maintain a cap on the city's licenses.

Somerville asked the state legislature, which imposes caps the number of liquor licenses each city and town can issue, to do away with the cap in Somerville.

The state legislature said no.

That's according to proceedings from a Somerville Board of Aldermen meeting held Thursday night.

Instead of granting the city unlimited liquor licenses, the legislature asked Somerville to come back with an amended request, known as a home rule petition. Somerville's new home rule petition formally asks the legislature to allow 10 new citywide liquor licenses.

The Somerville Board of Aldermen approved the new home rule petition Thursday, but members weren't happy about it. Neither was the mayor, Joseph Curtatone.

"It's very frustrating, I have to tell you," Curtatone told the Board.

State caps on liquor licenses date back to the end of Prohibition, when legislators wanted to prevent us from "drinking ourselves under the table," Curtatone said.

What the caps have done, the mayor said, is create an artificial market for liquor licenses, which can cost $100,000 in Somerville () and even more in Boston, where they regularly go for $200,000 and even up to $450,000. Competition for available licenses is stiff.

Those costs stifle the small businesses that are attracted to Somerville, Curtatone told the Board of Aldermen.

"It's about [the] local economy and jobs," he said. "It makes no sense, the quota system."

Ward 4 Alderman Tony Lafuente agreed, saying he recently spoke to a top chef who was interested in opening a business in Somerville but was scared off by the uncertainty surrounding liquor licenses.

"I think it's a shame the state legislature does not appreciate the destination Somerville has become," Lafuente said.

City Solicitor Frank Wright said the state legislature was "not inclined to give the city full control of licenses."

"This is something the legislature has maintained control over since Prohibition was off the books," he said.

Nonetheless, in the short term the city would be happy to have 10 more liquor licenses to issue, the mayor said.

"This was a hard fought negotiation," he said.

In approving the new home rule petition, the Somerville Board of Aldermen send the matter back to the state legislature.

The new measure would grant 10 additional citywide liquor licenses to Somerville.

Apart from those, there are currently 10 liquor licenses set aside for Assembly Square. The new home rule petition, if approved, would add 2 more to the Assembly Square collection.

More on the home rule petition

Interesting article from the Boston Globe: "For the price of a Boston liquor license... oh, never mind"

Interesing commentary from Commonwealth Magazine: Somerville: End the liquor license cap"

Donal Waide September 14, 2012 at 01:40 PM
How come neighboring Cambridge has unlimited licenses?
Somerville Home Owner September 14, 2012 at 01:47 PM
@Donal: Better connections??
JJ September 14, 2012 at 02:47 PM
The People's Republic answers to no one! Or more likely it is due to the following explanation offered by the Commonwealth Magazine article cited above: "Officially, the city operates under a liquor license cap. But that cap is set by Cambridge’s License Commission, not state law. Beacon Hill gave Cambridge the authority to issue its own licenses in 1922 – a time when the sale of alcohol was illegal, and the License Commission dealt mostly with regulating billboards, pool halls, bowling alleys, pawn shops, and the sale of soda and ice cream on Sundays. The License Commission took over alcohol regulation when Prohibition ended. The city has capped the number of liquor licenses it will allow in various neighborhoods since the mid 1980’s, but the discretion to raise those neighborhood caps rests solely with the city." According to the Cambridge liquor license website the cap they cite dating to the mid-80s has to do with 2 a.m. liquor licenses. I assume this means that most licenses now just go to restaurants. When you don't have to deal with these issues, it's not hard to understand why a place like Kendall Square has suddenly become the city's new gastro-hub.
cp kostos September 14, 2012 at 04:24 PM
I don't agree that a beer and wine license that allows restaurants to serve to customers with their food at a table should be included in the overall count of liquor licenses . Beer and wine don't come close to the amount of alcohol content that is in hard 60 - 100 % liquor. Restaurants do not have bars solely for drinking purposes. This ruling the state has is archaic and should be challenged by numerous cities as a class action if possible or the Mass. Restaurant Assn.

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