While it's not unequivocated, the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) has given qualified approval to the township's ability to restrict the sale of alcohol to full-service restaurants at an indoor shopping mall.
Before township council —the first to approve the sale of alcohol in town, the second to impose the aforementioned restriction—several residents raised concerns about the township's legal right to impose the restriction. If voters pass Question 1, they wondered, but the ABC deems Question 2 invalid, could there be alcohol anywhere in town?
Township attorney Thomas Coleman said he believed the restriction was enforceable, mentioning similar regulations in Willingboro, which limits liquor licenses to 250-seat restaurants, and Audubon.
But neither he nor council had solid answers because they hadn't checked the legality of Question 2 because they didn't introduce the referendums. Mall owner Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT), in partnership with grassroots citizens group "Property Tax Relief for Moorestown," which distributed petitions to get the necessary signatures, was responsible for the ballot questions.
In a letter from ABC director Jerry Fischer to PREIT attorney Anthony Drollas earlier this month, Fischer states he reviewed an ordinance submitted by Drollas to restrict alcohol sales to the mall. He writes, "Ordinances which conflict with the state regulatory scheme or are preempted by state law are not approved," but does not say the ordinance submitted by Drollas does either.
Fischer goes on to say his approval "is not a determination on the merits of any specific case … nor does it preclude an appeal by an aggrieved party related to a specific application of the ordinance."
Those caveats in place, Fischer writes that he approves the ordinance.
Long story short: ABC says restricting the sale of alcohol to the Moorestown Mall is OK, but it doesn't mean someone couldn’t come along and challenge it.
A transparent campaign
The restriction question was only one of several raised at Monday's meeting by residents, who asked the township to host a special public meeting to provide answers to those .
Council was wishy-washy on those requests, again asserting the referendum issue was not of their making.
However, Seth Broder, unofficial spokesman for the citizens group, said he would be discussing with PREIT the possibility of holding public information sessions.
PREIT president Joe Coradino said "absolutely" when asked whether the company had plans to hold public meetings.
"We will be on a very transparent educational and community campaign," he said. "We recognize there are a great deal of questions."
He clarified that he saw the education/community campaign taking the form of a "series of smaller public meetings, rather than 300 people in a room."
Coradino said he and other supporters had a private meeting scheduled next week to plan out their information campaign strategy, which they intend to roll out after Labor Day.
'That’s the practical way to do it'
Another question that has persisted is whether PREIT could purchase one license to cover multiple restaurants at the mall. If that were the case, the township would bring in a lot less money from selling the licenses than if they were able to sell all six they're allotted (one for every 3,000 people in a town of roughly 20,000).
Zachariah Hosseini, a spokesman for ABC, put that rumor to rest by explaining that the owner of the license must also be the operator of the business.
PREIT's just the landlord, he said. Each restaurant needs its own license—unless PREIT wants to run the restaurant.
"It's very uncommon for a landlord to do that," Hosseini said.
Coradino said there are four restaurants with liquor licenses at the Cherry Hill Mall, which PREIT also owns, with a fifth on its way.
He explained the company's strategy: "When we hear there's a license on the market, we usually buy it, put it on the shelf, and when we get the restaurant, we tell them, 'We'll sell it to you for what we got it for' ... When they leave, we buy it back for the same price."
Bahama Breeze, Capital Grille, Maggiano's Little Italy and Seasons 52 all possess separate liquor licenses at the Cherry Hill Mall. Coradino also pointed out Bahama Breeze, Capital Grille and Seasons 52, though all owned by the same company, each have separate licenses.
Hosseini explained multiple restaurants owned by the same entity within the same building still can't operate off one license unless the establishments are contiguous.
"We buy the license to preserve the opportunity to have fine dining with liquor at our mall," Coradino said. "That's the practical way to do it. What we're doing is appropriate and legal."
According to PREIT, the ability to sell alcohol at the Moorestown Mall would generate approximately $4 million in revenue, up front, for the township through the sale of the licenses and $500,000 every year thereafter.
However, it's difficult to determine how much the township would bring in from selling the licenses because there's no history to use as an indicator and, while a license at Cherry Hill went for $1.6 million in 2006, there would be no other competition (assuming Question 2 passes) for licenses in Moorestown to ignite a bidding war.
Regardless, council's vote Monday directed the county clerk to place the questions on the Nov. 8 ballot and Mayor John Button wouldn't have it any other way.
"I am perfectly fine with putting it to the voters," he said. "Let's let the voters decide."
UPDATE: Letter from state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control to PREIT attorney attached.