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Blue laws and BYOB - Ocean City Sentinel: News

Blue laws and BYOB

Fight over city's blue laws in mid-1980s included subtext over alcohol

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Posted: Wednesday, February 16, 2011 12:00 am

In January city council approved a resolution supporting the resort’s longstanding prohibition against alcohol consumption in restaurants.

The resolution was meant to halt any advancement of Bring Your Own Bottle (BYOB), a concept where restaurant patrons are permitted to consume wine or beer in eating establishments.

Supporters of BYOB believe it will stimulate Ocean City’s restaurant business, which they claim suffers a disadvantage compared to their mainland counterparts who serve alcohol.

Opponents of BYOB say allowing alcohol consumption in restaurants would open a Pandora’s Box to bars, public drunkenness and other deviant behavior the city’s Methodist founding fathers sought to quell when they developed Ocean City as a seaside religious resort.

As a social issue, BYOB is big news in Ocean City. Media outlets outside of the city, particularly in the Philadelphia area, cover it whenever the issue arises.

Yet Ocean City is far from a dry town.

Alcohol flows copiously during summer events such as the Night in Venice boat parade and booze is brought into the city from off the island.

Yet bringing alcohol to restaurants is strictly forbidden and has been for generations.

In 1879 four Methodist ministers, Ezra Lake, James Lake, S. Wesley Lake and William Burrell, established a Christian retreat and camp akin to one established at Ocean Grove.

Ocean City’s founders wanted their town to represent clean and sober living, so the city’s Blue Laws prohibited shopping, bathing and other leisure activities on Sundays.

Ocean City Association passed a series of blue laws in 1881 that forbade swimming, riding or businesses from opening on Sundays.

It wasn’t until 1909 that the city passed a law forbidding the sale or manufacturing of alcohol.

In 1951 the city prohibited the delivery of wholesale merchandise on Sundays and forbid the consumption of alcohol on beaches.

In 1958 the city passed an ordinance forbidding drinking alcoholic beverages in public places.

The city’s blue laws – ordinance 947 – amended in 1963 via public referendum, made it unlawful for businesses to open, for recreation and bathing on the beach on Sundays. The ordinance states that it is unlawful for “any person, firm, association or corporation to engage in any worldly employment or business” or to operate “any amusement, sport or entertainment for admittance, use or participation by the general public.”

Under the blue laws, amusement parks, movie theaters, arcades, clothing stores and bookstores were closed on Sundays. Prepared foods were permissible for sale, but not produce such as fruits and vegetables.

In June 1985 a superior court judge ruled the Sunday closings law could not be enforced.

In November 1985, residents had a choice in a nonbinding referendum: to open all businesses on Sundays or enact a partial blue law that allows hotels, restaurants, service stations and pharmacies to remain open on Sundays.

The public voted for a modified blue law 3,084 to 2,828.

Fears that a total rejection of the blue laws could open the door to alcohol sales was an undercurrent of the election.

Newspaper advertising reflected these fears.

In one ad, which ran in the Sentinel-Ledger on Oct. 17, 1985, the Ocean City Merchants Association tried reassuring voters alcohol was not an issue in amending the blue laws.

“Attention! Ocean City Voters – Liquor licenses are not at issue in Ocean City. A vote favoring all businesses being open on Sunday will not bring liquor into Ocean City.”

Another series of ads rebuffed these claims, claiming “Ocean City True Blue” for the closed modified option.

“And what makes Ocean City unique? Our Sunday closing laws. Our liquor restrictions,” the ad read.

Furthering the concern with alcohol was an ordinance council let die that would have amended the alcohol ban. The proposed ordinance would’ve strengthened the existing city code to prohibit delivery and warehousing of alcohol in Ocean City.

According to a Nov. 7, 1985 editorial in the Sentinel-Ledger, “By not strengthening the alcohol code, however, council is implying that perhaps it’s time to weaken this ban. That’s the only conclusion one can reach when it is remembered that council last year changed the alcohol code to specifically allow local deliveries. They did this by repealing a portion of the 1951 ordinance which made alcohol deliveries illegal.”

For 13 months after the Superior Court’s ruling, businesses in Ocean City operated on Sundays, until July 1986, when the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s ruling and upheld the blue law’s validity.

According to the July 31, 1986 Philadelphia Inquirer, merchants asked the New Jersey Supreme Court for emergency temporary relief from the blue laws. City council voted to instruct its attorney to oppose the merchants’ request.

“Mayor Roy Gillian had ordered the city’s 22 tennis courts, six playgrounds, golf course and Music Pier closed last Sunday, although the blue laws did not require the closings. Gillian had said he wanted everyone, not just businesses, to feel the effect of strict Sunday closings,” according to the article.

It was reported in the July 29, 1986 Sentinel-Ledger that Gillian’s handling of the local blue laws’ enforcement led some to talk of possibly recalling him as mayor, even though he had served less than a month in office.

Interviewed in the Sentinel-Ledger Aug. 12, 1986, summer resident Charles Furimaky called the threat of alcohol a scare tactic in the blue law debate.

“That shows the mentality of some people. They are the ones who prophesized liquor would follow open Sundays and it hasn’t happened,” Furimaky said.

City council put the issue of repealing the blue laws to a binding referendum on the November ballot in 1986 and let the public decide.

Some businesses saw it as an opportunity to prosper and entice more tourists to Ocean City, while traditionalists believed it would destroy the character of the town.

Police complained the blue laws were impossible to enforce. Violators of the blue laws faced a fine of $200, up to 90 days in jail or both.

It wasn’t long before people started taking sides and citizens groups formed.

The Save Our Sundays Committee was a citizen group opposed to repealing of Ordinance 947, while Families for Freedom of Choice supported the repeal.

Though the referendum dealt with Sunday closings, the fear that a similar movement could undo the city’s prohibition of alcohol in restaurants crept into the public discourse.

In the Aug. 19, 1986 Sentinel-Ledger, resident Norman Bacon wrote: “The fact that we don’t now have alcohol for sale in Ocean City makes us unique to other Jersey communities and more desirable to the majority of our residents and visitors. But we need the assurance of no alcohol sales by enacting a law that absolutely cannot be changed or broken by the greed of a few and that may only be changed by a full majority vote of the registered voters in Ocean City.”

Newspaper advertisements captured the type of opposition to allowing alcohol in Ocean City. One ad in the Oct. 30, 1986 Sentinel-Ledger contained images of ghosts and jack o’lanterns and stated, “The spirits are haunting us and not just because of Halloween!”

The ad contained a Sept. 12, 1986 letter to the editor which read “If it is unfair to close one business on Sunday and let another operate, then why is it not unfair to prohibit restaurants from serving alcoholic beverages? This prevents them from being able to compete on an equal basis with restaurants in Somers Point. Is it unfair to these businessmen or to those visitors desiring wine or a cocktail with dinner, who must not go out of town?”

The ad contains an image of a whiskey bottle and two cocktails and proclaims, “Could this be the next step following the repeal of our blue laws? Both sides say ‘no’...but think about it!...Vote ‘no’ Nov. 4th.”

An advertisement placed by the Ocean City Merchant’s Association in the Oct. 30, 1986 issue of The Sentinel Ledger told voters not to be “misled by false advertising” over fears that repealing the blue laws would create “Bars on the Boardwalk.”

The merchants advocated that “quality merchandise stores” had been chased off the Boardwalk due to the partial Sunday closing law, creating more fast food restaurants on the Boardwalk. The ad urges voters to abolish the partial Sunday closing law.

“Alcohol is not an issue in this election, nor has it been proposed by anyone in this city!” the ad read.

On Nov. 4, 1986, Ocean City voters went to the polls. By a vote of 3,936 to 3,345, voters rejected the blue laws. The election drew 70 percent of registered voters.

Council President William Meis, an opponent of the blue law, said following the outcome, “I said I would dive off the Music Pier if the no vote won and now I don’t have to do that. This is a great day for the faithful.”

Councilman Henry Knight said the vote came down to money spent by interests that wanted the blue laws repealed.

“Money talks,” Knight said. “I think that’s what happened. Money overcame the traditionalists.”

The Sentinel-Ledger’s Nov. 6, 1986 editorial mentioned alcohol could be the next to be repealed if the public wasn’t vigilant.

“What has kept this town in its so-called dry state all these years are, primarily, the same things that defeated the blue law: organization and money. As long as there is no attempt to upset the status quo by allowing the outright sale of alcohol in town, the outside business people who sell the beer, wine and liquor won’t be threatened. However, if the in-town restaurant people were to mount a campaign for the consumption of alcohol in eating establishments here – as long as the spirits would be the double-edged, increased business incentive for both the inside and outside interests. We are not advocating such an amendment. We are simply pointing out that by applying the same arguments put forth in the blue law campaign, a push could be mounted to modify the alcohol restrictions and that, therefore, there exists a genuine relationship between a blue law and a dry town in Ocean City,” according to the editorial.

Resident Stuart Hernandez wrote the following in a letter to the editor in the Nov. 13, 1986 Sentinel-Ledger; “I can’t recall ever hearing of a town which hit the skids due to liquor. Of course, liquor brings its problems, not the least of which are drunk driving. But for the most part, these problems are controlled, and anyway, these problems are as only far away as Somers Point or Margate or Marmora, places which ain’t far...I guess I would just as soon not see liquor come to Ocean City, but if it does, I’ll tolerate that, too. Liquor may also be an inevitability. Remember the new crowd in town, they now have something to say about things here.”

In the Nov. 20, 1986 Sentinel-Ledger, resident Dr. Richard Raab wrote alcohol repeal was not an aim of rejecting the blue laws.

“The real issue brought by the S.O.S. and the Tabernacle Association was the fact that if 947 was repealed, the next thing would be bringing alcohol into Ocean City and ‘bars on the boardwalk!’ The Families for Freedom of Choice and the Merchants Association insisted that this assumption was preposterous and utterly ridiculous. The two issues were totally unrelated and they were totally against the sale of alcohol in Ocean City.”

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