By LINDA MOSS
Liquor licenses are a valuable commodity in Montclair, where there are only a dozen of them, and several Township Council members are concerned that two have been inactive, not in use at local bars or restaurants.
As a result, at its meeting last week the local governing body declined to take action to renew two consumption licenses held by Montclair developer and commercial landlord Dick Grabowsky, as well as those held by two establishments — Tierney’s Tavern and Trumpets Jazz Club and Restaurant — that didn’t have tax-clearance certificates from the state at that time.
Those certificates document that a business is up to date paying its retail-sales taxes, and are required before the council can renew liquor licenses, which are issued by the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
New Jersey has some of the most complex liquor-sale regulations in the nation, with a variety of liquor licenses issued to different businesses, from retail establishments to wholesalers and distributors. Critics have criticized the liquor laws as arcane, but efforts to overhaul them in Trenton have failed. So-called consumption liquor licenses are issued to establishments, mainly restaurants and bars, that serve alcohol to patrons. In Montclair, a consumption liquor license is worth about $1.2 million.
At the meeting last Tuesday, June 20, At-Large Councilman Rich McMahon voiced objections about voting to renew the inactive, or so-called pocket licenses, that Grabowsky owns. The council had a list of the 12 licenses up for renewal, all expiring June 30.
“I for one am tired of these pocket licenses,” McMahon said. “We have two licenses that have been inactive for a really long time. We only have 12 licenses in town. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
Deputy Mayor William Hurlock said he shared McMahon’s concerns and sought legal advice about what recourse the municipality had. But Township Attorney Ira Karasick said he had to abstain from commenting because Grabowsky is one of his clients, suggesting that Hurlock instead discuss the matter with Assistant Township Attorney Joseph Angelo.
For his part Grabowsky, who wasn’t at the meeting, said he was unconcerned about the township declining to take action on his licenses because he’s not using them and has fulfilled all the necessary requirements and has state approvals for them.
At the council meeting McMahon acknowledged that even if the council doesn’t clear Grabowsky’s licenses, the state will approve them.
“It’s just not right,” McMahon said.
Hurlock said, “So this can just go on ad infinitum and there’s no recourse? … This cannot continue. I would like to at least put some kind of position out there.”
One of Grabowsky’s licenses was used at the now-closed Rascals Comedy Club, on Bloomfield Avenue. Grabowsky couldn’t be reached for comment on his second inactive liquor license, but several sources said that particular one had formerly been used at the now-defunct Richie Cecere’s Restaurant and Supperclub, near the Walnut Street train station.
The council granted McMahon’s request to take Grabowsky’s two inactive liquor licenses off the table for a vote, and the governing body approved the renewal of eight other licenses. However without the tax-clearance certificates from Tierney’s and Trumpets, the council could not take action on those licenses.
Since the meeting, Trumpets has received a liquor license extension, known as an ad interim license, from the state, to keep selling alcohol past June 30, Township Clerk Linda Wanat said.
Kristine Massari, a co-owner of Trumpets, said that the business’ accountant had filed its papers late to get a sales-clearance certificate from the state, but that the club was paid up on all its retail taxes.
With that certificate, the council will be able to vote on Trumpets’ liquor-license renewal at its July 11 meeting, extending it for the next year, according to Massari.
“The town has been very supportive,” she said.
As for Tierney’s securing renewal of its liquor license, owner Dan Tierney said last week, “We’re busy tackling the problem and don’t foresee any disruptions.”
On Tuesday, Tierney reported, “The problem has been taken care of we’re happy to report.”
Some restaurants in town hold several kinds of liquor licenses. For example, the owner of Egan & Sons and Halcyon Brasserie has a brewery license and a carry-out license, in addition to a consumption license, for those establishments on Walnut Street.
Liquor licenses are granted to towns based on their population, though some municipalities have many more than Montclair because they had pre-existing bars and eateries that served alcoholic beverages and were grandfathered in. For example, Morristown has 23 consumption licenses, according to Deputy Clerk Robin Kesselmeyer.
At last week’s council meeting, Adriana O’Toole, one of the co-organizers of an anti-development community group, suggested that the town is trying to bump up the local population so it can qualify for more liquor licenses.
“I really think you’re doing this to get another liquor license,” O’Toole told the council. “That’s what I’m really suspicious of.”