UPDATE: The attorney representing the owners of East Gate Square wouldn't say whether they'd take legal action if the township restricts alcohol sales to the Moorestown Mall.
"Now, I'm an optimist," said attorney Jeff Johnson, "and when council puts its alcoholic beverage board hat on, (I'm hoping) they'll think, 'What are our regulations and what are the reasons for them?'"
He then added, "In reality, they'll probably keep the restriction."
Indeed, township council showed no signs Monday of relenting on its position to restrict the issuance of licenses solely to the mall.
Johnson said East Gate would "do its best to seek permission to participate in the bidding."
If they're denied, the only possible recourse would be to take the township to court, he admitted. "We haven't crossed that bridge yet … We’re kind of taking a wait-and-see approach.”
Johnson, on behalf of East Gate, sent a 10-page letter to township attorney Thomas Coleman last week detailing the shopping center’s objections to the proposed liquor license restriction.
Among other arguments, the letter specifically challenges the township’s assertion that it must enact referendum two—the one restricting sales to an “indoor shopping in the SRC zoning district,” i.e. the mall—because it was passed by voters. The township has cited the Faulkner Act, which provides governing guidelines for municipalities, as the basis for its position.
However, Johnson, in his letter, writes “the Faulkner Act is inapplicable where the Alcoholic Beverage Law (ABL), a more specific statute, clearly limits referendums to a finite number of issues.” In other words, he writes, the ABL “does not provide for a referendum applying any unique conditions on liquor license ... as Referendum Question 2 attempts to do.”
Johnson suggested council limit licenses to the entire SRC zone, but remove the caveat about an “indoor shopping mall.”
“If the government’s going to restrict the proposition, they have to do it reasonably,” he said.
PREIT president Joe Coradino had little to say about East Gate's challenge when reached for comment Wednesday, indicating the mall owner was "business as usual."
"We're not really party to this action," he said. "The voters have spoken, overwhelmingly; they've more than just spoken."
Johnson said East Gate had reached out to PREIT early on, before the referendum vote, but nothing came of those conversations.
Coradino said he had not personally spoken with anyone representing East Gate and was not aware if anyone else had.
"We've got a lot of people here," he said.
The owners of East Gate Square shopping center may be mounting a challenge to what they perceive as the Moorestown Mall’s “monopoly” on liquor licenses.
Speaking before township council Monday night, attorney Jeff Johnson, representing the owners of East Gate, put forth several arguments against restricting the issuance of liquor licenses to full-service restaurants “located on the same tax lot as an indoor shopping mall in the SRC zoning district,” as spelled out in the second referendum in November.
Johnson argued such a restriction would give mall owner PREIT (Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust) a “monopoly” on alcohol sales in town and also constitutes illegal spot zoning.
“Illegal spot zoning, in a nutshell, is that you cannot favor one property owner above other similarly situated property owners without a valid reason,” he said.
East Gate is also located in the SRC zone, but lacking an indoor shopping mall, is precluded from bidding on licenses (per ). Johnson, an attorney with the Brown & Connery law firm, suggested council open up the restrictions to permit alcohol sales throughout the entire SRC zone.
He also argued the proposed restriction to the mall violates state law, which prohibits zoning by referendum, he said.
Township attorney Thomas Coleman has advised council all along that language in the referendums—written by PREIT—was legally permissible, and PREIT had obtained a from the director of the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
However, in the lead-up to the vote, on PREIT’s campaign, even going so far as to obtain a lengthy legal opinion, which raised objections strikingly similar to those put forth by Johnson.
Still, Coleman defended the township’s position Monday, noting the passage of the second referendum, according to Faulkner Act guidelines, was legally binding. In other words, the township has to abide by the will of the voters.
Though they respectfully heard Johnson out, none of the council members bought his argument.
“What you’re asking us to do is to undo what the majority of the voters voted for,” said Councilman Chris Chiacchio, “which is a pretty big step. I’m not sure I find the argument compelling to just ignore the will of the voters.”
Johnson also suggested the township, by restricting alcohol sales to the mall, is ignoring the obvious monetary benefits. PREIT has stated publicly it . The township is allotted six, based on its population (one per 3,000 residents).
“What we are leaving on the table is the income that can be derived from two liquor licenses,” said Johnson. “Assuming the amount suggested by PREIT would be applied to the other licenses, that’s another $2 million”—not to mention the added tax revenue from two more restaurants.
“The owners of the East Gate shopping center have a track record of obtaining and maintaining quality, full-service restaurants that serve liquor,” he noted. “You only have to look from the parking lot of the Moorestown Mall to see (those restaurants) in the Mount Laurel section of the East Gate shopping center.”
Coleman countered it was “a little presumptuous” for Johnson and his clients to assume the township would be unable to sell the additional licenses.
Johnson presented East Gate’s case prior to council voting on . After hearing his argument, council adopted the ordinance unanimously.
Johnson and a group of men who were with him, presumably his clients, stepped out of the room to speak for several minutes following the vote and were not prepared to comment further Monday night. He said he could not comment at that time on any potential action East Gate might take.
According to Coleman, Johnson had only reached out to him—via a 10-page legal opinion—within the last week.