OCEAN CITY, N.J. - Voters in this "dry" Jersey Shore town - where alcohol has never been legally served in public since the town's founding as a religious summer retreat in the 1880s - Tuesday soundly defeated a proposal to allow diners to bring their own beer or wine to restaurants.
Officials said 3,127 voters - nearly the number who cast ballots in last November's election - said no to the measure proffered by a local restaurant association that would have allowed the practice known as BYOB.
Only 1,425 said they favored changing the rule in this northern Cape May County beach town, where the issue was hotly debated for more than 16 months.
"I believe family tradition is strongly supported in our town, and BYOB did not follow that tradition," said Mayor Jay Gillian, who in a statement called the issue "very personal to our community."
Voting was steady all day and up until 8 p.m. when the polls closed, according to election officials, who said more than half of Ocean City's 8,970 registered voters came out to cast ballots in the referendum and City Council races.
"It is gratifying to see that the voters spoke loudly and soundly that allowing the public consumption of alcohol is not in the best interest of Ocean City," said Andrew Fasy, chairman of a residents group called the Committee to Preserve Ocean City.
"This has clearly been a hot-button issue in our city . . . one that has caused great differences of opinion. We're pleased it's now behind us."
BYOB proponents - mostly local restaurateurs - had long argued they were losing out on business, especially during the lucrative summer months, when diners would leave the island to patronize eateries on the mainland where BYOB is legal or there are full-service bars.
The Ocean City Restaurant Association also contended that allowing patrons to bring their own beer or wine would have drummed up business not just for restaurants but for local retail shops that could have benefited from an increase in evening foot traffic.
The restaurant group launched a successful campaign last summer and fall to garner enough signatures to place the referendum question on the November 2011 ballot. But the question was withdrawn when legal wrangling surfaced in an unrelated court case in North Jersey over the precise amount of alcohol that could be brought to a restaurant.
The latest proposal did not indicate a limit, and the group reworked its proposal to remove the Boardwalk and outdoor spaces as places where BYOB would have been allowed because during the last referendum go-round, many residents said they would accept BYOB if the family-friendly Boardwalk was not part of the deal, said Bill McGinnity, vice president of the restaurant association.
Some residents did not want to see "people walking down the Ocean City Boardwalk carrying six-packs," he said.
But the changes were not enough to sway residents.
"We fought the good fight, but I'm glad it's over," McGinnity, who owns Cousin's Restaurant, said following the defeat.
Backers of BYOB had contended that the ban was as arcane as the city's former "blue laws," which were defeated in a similar referendum in the 1980s.
The blue laws prevented shoppers from buying clothes, sundries, and virtually anything other than food on Sundays, a ban that harkened back to the town's beginnings as a Methodist summer camp.
Restaurant owners said a 1984 ordinance that gave police the power to write summonses against people consuming alcohol in public was equally outdated. That law was enacted by the City Council when a restaurant renaissance spurred diners to unlawfully bring their wine or beer to Ocean City eateries.
Backers of the referendum argued that drinking does occur in Ocean City: Gigantic liquor stores sit in mainland towns at the foot of the two main bridges leading into and out of Ocean City. People drink in private homes and at functions such as weddings and parties at hotels and restaurants in the town.
There are also bars in private clubs such as the Ocean City Yacht Club and military benevolent organizations where one must be a member to drink.
But opponents of BYOB said they worried that approving it would destroy the character of a place marketed for decades as "America's Greatest Family Resort."
Ocean City's ban on public drinking sets it apart from other resorts, said Fasy, who said his group had no political or religious affiliation as it waged its six-month campaign against BYOB.
"I think our approach made sense to people," Fasy said after the vote. "I think it created a dialogue where people could put the issues on the table and really make an educated decision about an issue that many people felt very strongly about."