Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

New Round of Debate Set on State's Liquor Licenses

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

New Round of Debate Set on State's Liquor Licenses

Article excerpt

Proponents of an overhaul of New Jersey's liquor-license laws are expecting to gain some traction this year after decades of proposals and legislation kicking around unsuccessfully.

Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, has been circulating a rough draft of a bill that would update the state's liquor laws. He's been talking about the issue with "select groups" of stakeholders, including restaurant owners and real estate developers. In New Jersey, liquor licenses range from $50,000 to more than $2 million, which critics say is putting a damper on economic development.

Advocates say a change in the laws -- which could include issuing more licenses -- would spur restaurant openings throughout the Garden State and boost redevelopment projects in ailing urban and suburban downtowns.

Burzichelli, chairman of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, said he hoped to have a final draft of his legislation introduced next month. Calling his bill a work in progress, he declined to discuss it in detail. But he did say that it will address the main issue that has stymied liquor-law change in the past: finding a way to protect and compensate current license holders who fear a change would devalue their licenses.

"It's my intention to take the subject up in earnest in mid- September," Burzichelli said. "It's very clear to me that the world surrounding liquor licenses has changed dramatically. We've gone from a society that used to see liquor as a-shot-and-a-beer joint on the corner. We've evolved into a society of casual dining and white- tablecloth dining where liquor complements the experience but doesn't drive the experience."

Those who hold licenses and those interested in obtaining licenses "recognize that something new has to be struck," he said.

Even the longtime opponent of any change in the laws, the New Jersey Restaurant Association, appears to be reexamining the issue.

"There has been a lot of talk about liquor-license reform, and I think the industry as a whole understands that, which is a huge break from maybe even where they were five or 10 years ago on the issue," said Marylou Halvorsen, the association's president. "But we just want to be cautious, because once you make a drastic change you really can't go backwards."

Those who favor changing liquor regulations maintain that a confluence of factors may have created a tipping point that will result in an updating of the laws, which date to the 1940s.

Financially struggling municipalities, bound by state-mandated caps on budget increases, are eager to increase their tax bases, often through redevelopment, proponents of liquor-license change say. The real estate industry contends that residential projects have to offer not just housing but also lifestyle offerings, like retailers and restaurants, to attract millennial and empty-nest refugees as tenants. New restaurants need liquor licenses, and the meager number doled out to towns based on population under the old liquor laws is insufficient.

Skeptics say that liquor-law legislation will continue to founder, despite the optimism expressed by advocates of change. The critics of a license overhaul include a number of North Jersey restaurateurs. Many of them paid top dollar to obtain their licenses and remain vehemently opposed to the issuance of more licenses, arguing that the value of theirs would erode and national restaurant chains would flood the state, hurting local mom-and-pop operations.

Halvorsen cautioned that her restaurant association would only entertain supporting a bill that takes into account and protects current license holders. She said the bill would have to be fair to all would-be license holders and not favor one group, such as developers.

Paramus Mayor Richard LaBarbiera said that current laws, which allocate a liquor license for every 3,000 people in a town, are outmoded and need to be examined. …

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