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Voter Turnout Heavy as Ocean City Weighs BYOB

Voters in Ocean City that calls itself America’s Greatest Family Resort will decide Tuesday whether the threat of competition outweighs their fears of turning a vestige of the temperance movement into a destination for “Jersey Shore”-type shenanigans.

Martin Child, Getty Images

The issue is one that has roiled Ocean City for decades: whether to allow restaurant patrons to bring their own beer or wine to enjoy with dinner. Polling places were buzzing Tuesday as voters turned out in droves to weigh in on the referendum.

It has been framed as a struggle between traditionalists who fear that allowing drinking at restaurants would wreck the family-friendly atmosphere Ocean City has worked hard to build, and those who say the city’s struggling eateries can’t afford to lose any more business to mainland restaurants that serve liquor.

Some restaurants informally tolerated BYOB until a 1984 city ordinance prohibited it. The ballot question deals only with the consumption of alcohol at restaurants; businesses still would not be allowed to sell it.

Ocean City dates to 1700, when whaler John Peck began using the barrier island as a place to store freshly caught whales. In 1879, four Methodist ministers bought what was then called Peck’s Beach to establish a Christian seaside resort. One of its main features was to be a permanent ban on the manufacture and sale of alcohol, something Ocean City has used as a selling point since the 1890s.

In 1891, a city promotional ad boasted: “A striking peculiarity of this city by the sea is that there are no liquor saloons or places of questionable character within its bounds. The sale of liquor is forever prohibited, and as a result, the best classes of people are drawn here, and disorder and drunkenness are unknown.”

A 1908 ad proclaimed “many churches; no saloons,” and a 1916 ad campaign described Ocean City as “absolutely free from saloons and all kindred evils.”

The measure excludes boardwalk businesses from BYOB and sets no limit on the amount of beer or wine a customer can consume with dinner. The law would set BYOB hours from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m.

A commonly voiced fear among BYOB opponents is that Ocean City would become overrun with drunken young adults who have changed the reputation of other boardwalk towns along the Jersey shore. Seaside Heights is a frequently mentioned boogeyman here, as is the MTV show “Jersey Shore,” which is set there.

But supporters say Ocean City’s restaurants are struggling to hang on while playing at a disadvantage to competitors just a few miles away that offer full bars.

Ocean City has lost nearly a quarter of its year-round population in just the past 10 years, falling to 11,701 residents. That, supporters say, makes it even more imperative for Ocean City businesses to keep customers in the city rather than watching them drive off the barrier island to enjoy a drink with dinner.

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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