OCEAN CITY, N.J. — Voters in this traditionally "dry" Cape May County resort will have their say Tuesday on a ballot question that could allow diners to bring their own bottles to local restaurants within days.
For weeks, supporters and opponents of allowing customers to tote wine or beer into Ocean City eateries have offered their perspectives in an onslaught of public discussions, door-to-door visits, letters to the editor, and news releases.
The Ocean City Restaurant Association began a campaign last year to overturn rules that prohibit BYOB service. The effort was intended to drum up business in a flagging economy and during the off-season, and to help restaurants on the barrier island compete with mainland dining spots that allow the practice, according to its proponents.
Some restaurateurs have complained that people leave town for nearby Somers Point or Marmora, where many dining establishments have liquor licenses or allow patrons to bring their own alcohol.
The group gathered enough signatures to have the binding referendum held in November but withdrew the question after a court challenge to a similar ballot measure in North Jersey. At issue was language that would have limited the amount of beer and wine patrons could take to BYOB establishments. Ocean City's revised question does not set a limit.
The restaurant owners also wanted to change the wording in order to prohibit boardwalk eateries from going BYOB, because the public seemed opposed to allowing it there, said Bill McGinnity, vice president of the restaurant association.
The new question was accepted in March for inclusion on Tuesday's general-election ballot. If voters approve, BYOB service (which excludes hard liquor) would become legal immediately, but restaurants would not be forced to make the change. Proprietors would have discretion over when to offer the BYOB option.
Compared to the campaigns opposing factions waged during the signature drives, "this time, it's been a much cleaner campaign on both sides," McGinnity said. "This time, people have a chance to vote on facts, not fear."
The proposal — which does not have the support of City Council — was met with strong opposition last summer and fall from the Ocean City Tabernacle, a religious organization that traces its roots to the town's founding as a Methodist summer retreat in the 1880s. Ocean City has marketed itself for decades as "America's Greatest Family Resort" and maintained its status as a place where there is no drinking in public. There also are no beer, wine, or liquor sales in town, which the BYOB proponents do not seek to change.
The Tabernacle mounted an aggressive campaign to keep the question from making it onto the ballot, distributing lawn signs, running ads in local publications, and urging its members to boycott businesses that favored BYOB. But in the run-up to the vote, Tabernacle officials have kept a low profile, even shunning interview requests.
Instead, the Committee to Preserve Ocean City emerged. The group, which says it has no religious or political affiliations, says it opposes the measure because it could alter the town's "wholesome family" character and hurt business.
"We believe the May 8 public ballot question on BYOB represents one of the most important votes in Ocean City's history. … We remain convinced that BYOB poses a distinct threat to our city's reputation, our economy, and our collective investment in Ocean City," said Andrew Fasy, a resident and chairman of the opposition committee who operates a real estate business in nearby Sea Isle City.