In Moorestown, a new debate about the location of liquor licenses

Posted: July 12, 2012

Last year, the big debate in Moorestown was whether to shatter a nearly century-old tradition by permitting the sale of liquor.

In a November referendum, voters resoundingly approved ending Moorestown's days as a dry municipality. But their yes vote has stirred up a new argument that has reached beyond the affluent community to Superior Court.

At issue is whether Moorestown Mall - which last week bid $1 million each for four liquor licenses to be used by mall restaurants - should have exclusive rights to pour spirits in the town.

Should the township accept a fifth bid of $1.03 million from a nearby shopping center that would like to join the party?

The owners of East Gate Shopping Center filed a complaint in April, saying they should be included in the liquor-license sale. A hearing is set for Aug. 2.

East Gate wants to serve liquor in the building currently leased by Friendly's, adjacent to the mall on Nixon Drive.

But last year's referendum did not simply ask voters if they wanted the ban on liquor sales lifted. A second ballot question - approved by a narrower margin - asked if they wanted sales restricted to restaurants in an unnamed indoor shopping mall off Route 38.

Moorestown Mall, which had lobbied for the referendum, was the only shopping center in town that met that description.

The hearing on the complaint filed by East Gate will be heard by Burlington County Assignment Judge Ronald Bookbinder.

The only reason the ballot question was worded the way it was because "the mall sponsored the referendum. . . . It should be a little fairer," Craig E. Huber, a Haddonfield lawyer, wrote on behalf of East Gate in its complaint.

The ballot question included a limit that "would potentially diminish the tax revenue generated and the number of jobs created," he said.

In its campaign to win voters over last year, the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust stressed that liquor sales would be limited to Moorestown Mall, which it owns. Previous referendums had failed because voters did not want bars marring Moorestown's quaint downtown.

"The voters spoke very loud and clear" when they approved the restriction, Tom Coleman 3d, Moorestown's solicitor, said Tuesday. "To go against the will of the voters of this township is wrong."

When some residents questioned the legality of the restriction before the vote, Coleman told them and the town council that he believed the restriction was reasonable.

Coleman would not go into detail about his reasons, saying he had no "obligation to waste taxpayers' money" last year by engaging in "an intellectual exercise to determine whether this is spot zoning or not." Spot zoning is the abuse of zoning laws to benefit one property owner over another.

East Gate has asked Bookbinder to invalidate the second ballot question, which led to creation of a special liquor-license zone by the town council.

East Gate is situated in the same zone as the mall, Huber said. "But for the fact that the two properties are separated by Nixon Drive and have different owners, the properties are almost identical," he said.

Voters may have wanted to ban liquor sales downtown, but not to restrict them to a small oasis off Route 38, Huber said.

PREIT officials were unavailable for comment.

Mayor John Button said last month that the town council had agreed to accept PREIT's and East Gate's bids but would wait until after the court hearing to decide how many licenses would be sold.

He said East Gate had "threatened a restraining order on our ability to sell the licenses" if the town did not open up the bidding process.

"We are anxious to move forward," he said, saying the license sales would bring revenue to the township.

East Gate does not want to stop the sale of the licenses, it just wants them to be made available to other restaurants, Huber said.

The town is allowed to sell up to six licenses, but the mall is only interested in four. If a fifth or sixth license were sold, Coleman said, the owner would have to wait three years to use it. The court, however, could change that.


Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com or @JanHefler on Twitter. Read her blog at www.philly.com/BurlcoBuzz

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