Harpswell to decide whether to allow liquor sales

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HARPSWELL — It already has the most coastline in the state and, this summer, the town might get even wetter.

Voters will decide whether to allow local retailers to apply for state liquor licenses, after a petition was submitted with 469 signatures, enough to put the question on the ballot for the town’s regularly scheduled June 13 election.

“We have never voted on allowing the sale of liquor, either on Sunday, or on any other day of the week,” Town Administrator Kristi Eiane told the board of selectmen last week, noting that residents looking for a stiff drink can only find one at local restaurants.

Teri Pontbriand, who sold the Bailey Island General Store to her son Trevor last year and still works there, led the petition drive.

“If you’re a business like we are, you really make your money in the summer season,” she said over the phone Monday. “(And) you want to put everything in your store that people want to buy.”

Because the general store – or BIGS, as it’s known – can’t sell liquor, Pontbriand explained that residents are forced to drive all the way to Brunswick to stock up.

“It’s probably an hour-long round trip (from BIGS to Brunswick),” she said, and inconveniences residents who can otherwise pick up groceries, beer, wine and household staples at the store, located at 2124 Harpswell Islands Road.

“Our concern is that (residents) go in to (Brunswick) to buy their liquor, and then they stop at Hannaford, Shaws, and Cumberland Farms,” while they’re in town, siphoning away business from Harpswell, she said.

Two separate questions will appear on the June ballot, Eiane said.

The first will ask voters if the town should allow the state to permit retail liquor sales on Sunday; the second, if the town will allow sales on all days other than Sunday.

Per state statute, the town can only authorize the state agency liquor stores through a petition that gathers signatures from at least 15 percent of votes cast in the latest gubernatorial election – in this case, at least 461 signatures.

The article then must appear on a secret ballot. 

The town has gone through the process four times before, but not since 1983. 

Until 1975, Harpswell was completely dry. That year, voters approved the on-premises consumption of beer, wine and liquor on days other than Sunday.

Over the next decade, three more referenda passed to allow restaurants to serve liquor on every day of the week; in 1983, voters allowed the same for the retail sale of beer and wine.

If the referendum passes in June, Pontbriand mentioned that individual stores like her son’s will still need to apply for a license from the state, “and that’s a whole process in itself.”

Because the state considers licenses infrequently, she said, it could be months until liquor is sold retail in Harpswell.

Business that rely heavily on seasonal revenue – like BIGS – might even opt to wait until next summer, Pontbriand suggested, when the seasonal crowd is around to make the $10,000 worth of liquor stock required for the state license a worthwhile investment.

Town Clerk Roz Knight has already verified the petition signatures, and could not yet say whether any other referendum questions would appear on the June ballot; she is not aware of any other petitions circulating in town.

A required public hearing is likely to be set for mid- to late-May, according to Eiane.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Coolers stocked with beer and wine at the Bailey Island General Store, 2124 Harpswell Islands Road. Teri Pontbriand, an employee whose son owns the store, led a petition drive for a vote on the retail sale of liquor in Harpswell.

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Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.