Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Vernon mayor wants to allow drinking in public; says permits will bring in revenue

By Kym Soper
Journal Inquirer
January 30, 2008

VERNON - A proposed ordinance that would allow alcohol to be served on town-owned property is set to be shaken - and likely stirred as well - as some area residents plan to fight adoption.

Vernon has been a semi-dry town since 1992, when neighborhood associations in and around Rockville campaigned successfully to ban public drinking altogether.

Drinking in the parks and on the streets had gotten out of hand, area residents said at the time, and the ban was needed to keep neighborhoods "free of noisy groups who tend to intimidate decent people and their children."

Mayor Jason L. McCoy is proposing, however, to add an exemption to the ordinance that would allow alcohol consumption "during any public function, festival, or celebration being conducted by any person within a public building, public highway, sidewalk, or parking area, or on public land pursuant to a written permit issued by the mayor authorizing" such.

McCoy says he hopes the exemption, which has insurance safeguards in place, will bring in much needed proceeds to town coffers, and envisions a bounty of roughly $50,000 a year.

"This is a business operation - it's a revenue generator," McCoy said.

But opponents say the exemption will open the floodgates for crime and debauchery.

Echo Drive resident William Green says he is circulating a petition opposing the ordinance, as is Democratic Councilwomen Pauline Schaefer and Marie Herbst. They are rallying the troops again, hoping for a full house at the public hearing Tuesday, Feb. 5, at 7:35 p.m. on the second floor of the senior center, 26 Park Place in downtown Rockville.

Ten years ago Schaefer and other residents living near Henry Park held a petition drive to ban alcohol from public areas. Back then, "it was getting to be Captain Keg here in town," Schaefer said of the time when drinking in public areas was allowed.

Schaefer says that baseball and softball leagues still pop open a beer after a game, or someone might have a glass of wine with a picnic lunch in the park, but public drinking is nowhere near the level it used to be. And those who do break the rules are subject to a $99 fine and any litigation that may arise due to their actions.

With the town issuing permits and sanctioning the activity, however, their actions become the town's responsibility, she said.

"My biggest fear is that someone leaves, gets into an accident and gets killed, or worse yet hurts someone else, and it comes back to haunt the town," Schaeffer said.

Herbst agreed with Schaeffer.

"I can't support something that's going to require a tremendous amount of oversight," Herbst said when the ordinance was first proposed last week.

"We've had some terrible problems with public drinking in the park - what if somebody wants to have an Octoberfest and there's children there? Once that door opens, a very big problem is going to evolve," she said.

Republican Councilman Daniel Anderson said that public drinking would be allowed by permit only, and that oversight would rest with the mayor's office with the basic premise of allowing primarily wine or beer.

"It would be there if the senior center wanted to have a New Year's gala or have a wine tasting while watching the fireworks on the Fourth of July," he said. "We're not saying bring your keg to the softball game or have an open bar at Center 375."

Parks and Recreation Director Bruce Dinnie says certain town sites such as the Fox Hill Memorial Tower often are sought as the location for celebrations and weddings.

"But I think we've missed out on a lot of revenue" because alcohol can't be served, he said. Still, "I hope that part of the process is that the chief of police signs off on this," he added.

Some council members also questioned if there was adequate public safety staffing in place to deal with an exemption to the ordinance.

"If you bring alcohol into a situation, you're going to need more cops," Republican Councilman and police officer Daniel Champagne said.

"I don't think the town's liability has been fully explored here," Democrat Councilman Michael Winkler said, adding he felt uncomfortable allowing drinking near residential neighborhoods. "We need to see limitations on where such permits could be issued."

"I don't see how we're going to derive any significant amount of revenue from this," Schaefer added. "I really honestly and truly feel this is sending the wrong message. I know Jason feels we have to bring in more revenue, but bringing in alcohol is not the way to do it."

©Journal Inquirer 2008