On Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Ronald E. Bookbinder wrote in a 31-page decision that the restriction was "illegal spot zoning" that benefited "particular private interests rather than the collective interests of the community."
He agreed with lawyers for the East Gate Square shopping center who had argued that their client should also be eligible to obtain a liquor license. East Gate, a strip shopping center, is in both Moorestown and Mount Laurel, and is located off Route 38 and Nixon Drive, adjacent to the mall.
In November, after a vigorous campaign, the mall's owners persuaded voters to overturn the town's 100-year-old ban on alcohol sales so that liquor could be served at restaurants they are planning to open as part of a rejuvenation project. The renovation plans include a new cinema complex.
Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, which also owns Cherry Hill, King of Prussia, and other malls, had proposed a two-question referendum: First, whether to allow liquor, and second, whether to limit it to an indoor shopping center in the zone where the mall is located.
The mall thus was the only place that qualified for liquor sales under this proposal.
PREIT officials have said the question essentially confining liquor sales to the mall was designed to win over residents who had defeated a previous liquor question because they opposed having bars in their quaint downtown.
Bookbinder struck down the second question on the ground that voters cannot decide zoning issues.
The mall and East Gate are in the same specially designated zone, and the judge noted that the town's 2009 economic development plan had recommended that liquor be allowed in this district.
The judge said that "the township has not offered any basis, let alone a valid one, for treating the East Gate property differently from the Moorestown Mall property even though the properties are essentially identical and are located within the same zone."
PREIT recently bid a total of $4 million for four restaurants it wants to open at the mall beginning next year. East Gate owners also submitted a $1 million bid for one of the town's six available liquor licenses, but township officials decided to put that one on hold pending the judge's decision.
"The town has to consider drafting an ordinance that's a little more inclusive. . . . Hopefully it will include our property," said East Gate's lawyer, Craig Huber of Archer & Greiner of Haddonfield. He said his client might bid for the sixth license if the town puts it up for sale.
Huber said he doubts the judge's ruling would open up the bidding to downtown establishments.
"There are a lot of problems with parking in the downtown," he said, and state laws prohibit bars from opening near churches and schools.
Tom Coleman III, the township's attorney, did not return a call for comment. But the mayor said that he "always knew it was a possibility" that the judge could overturn the ordinance, and that the township officials would take appropriate steps to "continue to move forward" with the liquor sale process.
"I don't think it will slow it down much at all," he said, saying the liquor licenses are needed to stimulate business at the mall and bring in more tax revenues.
Heather Crowell, a spokeswoman for PREIT, noted that the judge did not invalidate the company's liquor licenses. "We're continuing to pursue the liquor licenses to sell alcohol at the mall," she said. "We'll pursue any legal action we feel is necessary" if there are obstacles.
Crowell said PREIT was in negotiations with potential restaurant owners and hoped to open the first as early as next year.
Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog, "Burlco Buzz," at www.philly.com/BurlcoBuzz.