Planning & Zoning Commission removes distance regulations for liquor stores

During its Sept. 23 meeting, the Planning & Zoning Commission voted to remove regulations restricting the minimum distance between liquor stores in Greenwich, despite a strong show of public support in favor of keeping them in place.

The issue was brought up by Dan Negrea from Kings Food Markets in Old Greenwich. The chain supermarket has looked to add a liquor section to its store on Arcadia Road, and the decision opens up an opportunity for it to begin selling wine despite its proximity to local package stores Old Greenwich Fine Wines and Sam’s Wines & Liquor, which would have been forbidden under the regulations.

However, last week’s hearing addressed only the validity of the restrictions and excluded all discussion about the specific situation in Old Greenwich.

The rule requiring package stores to be at least 1,000 feet apart had been in effect in Greenwich since the 1940s, when the end of Prohibition and World War II brought a boom to the alcohol industry. Representing Mr. Negrea and Kings Food Markets, lawyer Jane Hogeman argued that the restriction was no longer necessary because of state regulations that prevent the spread of liquor stores within the town.

 Additionally, she asserted that package stores should be considered in the same vein as a traditional retail business, separating them from restaurants and bars where alcohol is actively being consumed. Ms. Hogeman explained that while the regulations restricting the space between restaurants and bars have been adjusted a number of times, the liquor store rules have remained constant since their integration. Meanwhile, the state began restricting the maximum number of package stores allowed within its municipalities based on population in 1986.

“Greenwich is entitled to only 24 package store licenses; there is no state cap on restaurants or bars,” Ms. Hogeman told the commission during the public hearing. “Greenwich in 1980 had 38 package stores; now there are 22. I called last week, and we are below the state cap. So that raises the question, Is there really anything else for the town regulation to do?”

This reasoning seemed ample enough for the Planning & Zoning Commission, which voted 4-1 in favor of removing the restrictions for liquor stores, while maintaining the 1,000-foot restriction for restaurants and bars outside the downtown area. Commission Secretary Richard Maitland provided the only dissenting vote.

“With restaurants there is definitely a safety implication with a lot of people drinking in one area. I’m not seeing it with a package store. But I know there’s a lot of overhang from the Prohibition era still in people’s minds, and I wouldn’t want to go against the community’s wishes, in spite of my own personal feelings,” commission member Margarita Alban said during the hearing.

However, based on public testimony during the hearing, the change is not a welcome one. Peter Yuri, a 42-year Greenwich resident, was one of several people living in the Old Greenwich community opposed to the regulation change and Kings’ plan to start selling wine.

“I don’t see a need for places to buy alcoholic beverages that are a little longer than a football field apart. … I’ve never found it difficult to find a liquor store if I wanted to buy alcoholic beverages, and I’m not sure that I need to have a more convenient one,” Mr. Yuri told the commission.

Old Greenwich Fine Wines and Sam’s Wines & Liquor are less than 500 feet apart as a result of a grandfathered package store permit, meaning Kings would make a third competing wine seller in the small area. Mr. Yuri suggested that the residential community would be unable to support all three stores, a sentiment echoed by Mike Sabatino, the owner of Continental Fine Wines and Spirits on Williams Street.

“The point all of you need to be educated on, and that you have missed, is that the state regulates what we can buy and the minimum we can sell it at,” Mr. Sabatino said. “You start putting these stores together, it’s minimum here, minimum there, somebody’s going out of business.”

Mr. Sabatino, whose store has been in business for 51 years, expressed concern over the competition small businesses like his faced against large discount stores, specifically alluding to the closing of a number of small liquor stores in Norwalk after the arrival of Total Wine.

“It’s unlike a restaurant — you can sell a meatball, and you put restaurants next to each other, if there’s six of them, there’s six different meatballs,” Mr. Sabatino said. “We sell Smirnoff, Smirnoff is Smirnoff. … we’re selling the same thing.”

Old Greenwich Fine Wines owner Robert Zalkin mirrored these concerns while speaking to the Post, and state Rep. Fred Camillo (R-151st), who was in attendance for a separate issue, also warned of the long-term implications of changing the long-standing regulation. Petitions in opposition of the change containing the signatures of more than 1,000 customers from Old Greenwich Fine Wines and Sam’s Wines & Liquor were submitted to the commission, but ultimately could not sway the board.

While the decision does not guarantee that Kings Food Markets will be able to follow through with its plans, it does remove a major hurdle. With Greenwich sitting just two package stores below the state limit, the current status quo may remain in effect for some time, but existing liquor stores and their owners have certainly lost a layer of protection.

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