July 22 2019

Selectmen Take Aim at Mall Liquor Licenses Despite Town Meeting Vote

By: Rich Hosford

The Board of Selectmen voted 5-0 in favor of sending a letter to the Joint Committee on Professional Licensure in the State House urging members to reject a request for additional liquor licenses that was approved by Town Meeting last fall. 


On September 24, 2018, Town Meeting voted by a large majority to approve a home rule petition to the state for 9 site-specific liquor licenses for the Burlington Mall that property owner Simon Properties said were necessary to make the planned renovation of the former Sears and Sears Auto Center successful. 


In the lead-up to Town Meeting members of the Board of Selectmen met with representatives from Simon to discuss concerns they had about that number of liquor license. They cited public safety issues and concerns that too many new restaurants with liquor licenses would harm existing establishments both at the mall and in the area around it. Selectmen said they countered with five licences, three all-alcohol and two beer-and-wine, with the possibility of more in the future if they were deemed necessary. 


When it became clear that Simon was going to hold to its request for nine licenses the board voted 2 in favor and 3 against recommending that Town Meeting approve the request. 


Town Meeting, however, voted to approve and a letter expressing the will of the town’s legislative body was sent to the State House. Upon receiving the letter State Rep. Ken Gordon and State Sen. Cindy Friedman filed a bill (HB 3676) to request the new licenses. That bill is now in the hands of the Joint Committee on Professional Licensure. 


On Monday, July 15, during the board’s meeting, the issue of the bill for the licenses came up for discussion. 


“We were surprised to learn that a petition was filed at the State House for new licenses for the redevelopment at the mall,” Town Administrator Paul Sagarino said. “The board is the liquor licensing authority in town and they voted unfavorably on these licenses when they were proposed. We thought it was important for the committee reviewing these at the State House to be made aware of the board’s position as they consider this proposal.”


Selectman Bob Hogan said he felt the board had been left out of the loop on the bill and the process with the state legislature. 


“We were not notified that this had been submitted,” he said. “Also, we were not informed there was a hearing going on so we’ve been blindsided on this.”


Other members said they agreed that they did not like how the process was handled and that nine additional licenses might be too many. 


“I was one of the two voted in favor of it [originally],” Selectman Jim Tigges said. “I’m not in favor of how this was handled without our knowledge so I’ll be supporting sending this letter to the State House.”


“As the licensing authority in town, certainly our voices need to be heard at the State House,” Selectman Michael Runyan said. “I too feel like the system was subverted, if that’s the right word, at any rate 19 licenses in that one address is excessive in my opinion.” 


Runyan added he wished that Simon Properties had continued to work with the board rather than go to Town Meeting. 


“The fact the Burlington Mall decided not to continue to negotiate with us and went directly to Town Meeting was disappointing to say the least,” he said. “I voted against this before and will again.”


Selectman Nick Priest, who was on Town Meeting during the first vote, said he also had issues with the process.  


“I understand the mall is doing what it can to adapt to a new climate and I respect that but the way this was poorly handled,” he said. “I’m not a fan that these licenses would be dedicated to the address and there could be a middle ground we could meet at so I’ll also vote against it.” 


“I think we’re all on the same page,” Board Chairman Joe Morandi said. 


The board voted 5-0-0 to send a letter to the State House and the Joint Committee on Professional Licensure. 


The Selectmen’s Letter 


In the letter the board lays out many of the arguments they have been making all along. They point out they originally voted against sending the bill to the legislature before Town Meeting’s vote. They also point out the number of licenses both at the Burlington Mall property and in the area surrounding the mall including in The District and the 3rd Ave. development project as well as other locations on or around Middlesex Turnpike. 


“Currently there are 50 licenses issued in Burlington,” the letter reads. “Within 4-6 minutes from the Burlington Mall (75 Middlesex Turnpike), there are 20 other issued restaurant liquor licences.”


The letter states that the board is concerned about over saturation of restaurants in the area. 


“The Board of Selectmen as the Local Licensing Authority has great concern about pressures on our public safety staff and facilities at the Mall specifically, but also in the Mall area generally,” it reads. “With such a large percent of the total licenses available for use or being used within a short distance in the Town, it puts undue focus and pressure on that specific area while short changing safety services in the remaining areas of the Town.”  


The letter also has the board stating that liquor licenses are under its purview and not Town Meeting’s. 


“The Board of Selectmen is the Local Licensing Authority and not the Town Meeting,” the letter states. “The staff that works on all licensing issues falls under the Board of Selectmen jurisdiction, not Town Meeting. The Police Department, that does all the enforcement, falls under the Board of Selectmen, not Town Meeting. The Board of Selectmen was in negotiations with Simon Properties as the Local License Authority, not Town Meeting.” 


The Process of a Bill 


So if the Board of Selectmen is the local license authority then why was the bill drafted? 


Rep. Ken Gordon said he put forward the bill requesting the additional licenses as a matter of procedure after the Town Meeting vote. 


“We received a letter from Town Clerk Amy Warfield including the certified vote of the majority of votes in Town Meeting,” he said, referring to himself and Sen. Friedman. “After that it is our job under state law to file a bill as a home rule petition. 


Gordon pointed to Burlington’s General Bylaw as his marching orders. 


“We carried out our responsibility and filed the bill as directed by the Town and we are carrying it through the legislature as directed by state law through the request of the Town of Burlington,” he said. “It’s my job to carry out the will of Town Meeting.” 


Town Clerk Amy Warfield said Gordon’s interpretation of events fits with her own. 


“That’s how it happens,” she said. “When something is passed at Town Meeting [requiring state legislative action] a letter just gets sent to them to process it because that’s the will of Town Meeting and that’s the will of the town.”


Town Meeting’s Stance 


When asked if he thought the Board of Selectmen was undermining a vote of Town Meeting, Moderator Bill Beyer said “I do feel that way.” 


“The Board of Selectmen is an executive group and Town Meeting is legislative,” he said “The role of an executive branch is to implement what Town Meeting tells it to implement. They are trying to replace Town Meeting’s judgement with their own. That is not their job, their job is to administer the will of Town Meeting.”


Beyer also disagreed with the assertion that the board has jurisdiction over licenses because they are the local license authority.  


“They are an administrator of licenses, not a granter of licenses and they are clearly overstepping their authority,” he said. “They should not be taking a position on actions of Town Meeting. They had an opportunity to speak beforehand but once Town Meeting votes it’s a done deal and they need to accept that.”


Beyer added that he was upset by the action the board has taken with the letter.  


“It’s frustrating to listen to their arguments,” he said. “It’s not like the vote was even close - Town Meeting voted about eighty percent in favor to 20 percent opposed. There was even an amendment made that would have aligned with the board’s wishes [of five new licenses] and that was defeated after significant discussion. I’m absolutely incensed.”


Next Steps 


Along with the letter, members of the Board of Selectmen have an upcoming meeting at the State House with members of the Joint Committee of Professional Licensure. 


Selectman Hogan said in an interview with BNEWS he hopes the committee will see the board’s arguments and not approve the licenses and that Simon will return to the negotiating table. 


“If they get half the licenses that would still give them 15 active licenses,” he said. “I say they should open the stores with that number and come back to us and we’ll approve the next batch if it’s not affecting other restaurants negatively.”


He also said he wasn’t concerned that the request being denied would negatively impact the ongoing renovation project at the mall. When making the pitch to Town Meeting, he pointed out, representatives of Simon Properties said they would not begin work until the licenses had been approved because they could not guarantee hitting their goal of filling up at least 50 percent of the planned new spaces without them. 


“They took it upon themselves to start without the licenses being given to them, so that’s not on us,” Hogan said. “We want the businesses to succeed and we were willing to accommodate half of them right away.” 


When asked why he thought the board should take an action that goes against what Town Meeting voted, Hogan said it is because of the board oversees liquor licenses. 


“Because they’re not the legal licensing authority,” he said. “We were in negotiations with the mall at that time and once they got the approval of Town Meeting they walked away.” 


Selectman Priest said he doesn’t enjoy the idea of the board going against of Town Meeting.  


“When it comes to the Town Meeting vote, I don’t feel great about going against Town Meeting,” he said. “I’ve always advocated for greater cooperation between Town Meeting and the Board of Selectmen.” 


What motivated him to vote in favor of sending the letter, Priest said, are concerns over public safety. 


“What we keep hearing from the Chief of Police around public safety concerns has been driving our level of engagement on this,” he said. “We have no control over these licenses, they would all be designated to the mall. To me, personally, as a parent, I get worried at the idea of overdoing it.”




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