By Matthew Hay Brown and Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun
6:22 PM EDT, March 24, 2012
Stop by the Red Rooster, a 10-seat joint just off Main Street in this rural community an hour west of Baltimore, and you can order a burger, some barbecue or the fried chicken that some locals claim is the best on the East Coast.
But don't bother asking for a beer to wash it down with. The Red Rooster, like every other business here, is barred by law from selling alcoholic beverages.
And that suits co-owner Kevin Miller just fine. The lifelong Damascus resident says the local ban has helped preserve the quiet character of this unincorporated corner of northern Montgomery County. "It's nice to be not so citified."
On the other side of the debate, Jay Traverso says the ban is holding Damascus back. He isn't looking to turn its small downtown into another Inner Harbor, but he believes that legalizing the sale of beer and wine would attract "maybe two or three at the most, smaller restaurants" — enough, he says, to draw other businesses, spurring needed economic development.
"It's a nice little town, but it needs to grow," says Traverso, a government consultant who moved here from Frederick seven years ago. The town could accommodate only a few good restaurants, he says, "but it would be enough to rejuvenate the area."
Now, 78 years after the repeal of Prohibition, diners in Damascus — among the last dry towns in Maryland — may finally get the opportunity to raise their glasses.
State lawmakers, approached by Traverso and others who want to see the ban lifted, are poised to approve a bill that would put the question to local voters on the November ballot.
If the voters agree, local restaurateurs could apply for licenses to sell beer and light wine. The Class H license would not allow the sale of liquor or wine containing more than 13 percent alcohol.
"Folks in Damascus, they have to drive to Germantown or drive to Frederick to get a glass of wine with their dinner," says Del. Eric G. Luedtke, a Democrat and one of the community's representatives in Annapolis. "Constituents are continuing to contact us" about lifting the ban.
The House of Delegates passed the legislation this month by a vote of 134-0. The measure is scheduled for a hearing in the state Senate this week.
How or why Damascus banned alcohol is lost to history. In 1976, the weekly County Courier published a perhaps fanciful story about a long-ago election at the local Odd Fellows Hall at which organizers rewarded each voter with a tin cup "filled with the product of King's distillery."
"The refreshment was so well-received that about midmorning, one of the voters decided to go through the line again," E. Guy Jewell reported, in a story untroubled by names or dates. "His action was soon copied by others" — and not only by locals residents but by visitors from "the other bank of the Patuxent, from Kemptown, and from around the railroad station at Mount Airy," among other locales.
By the time the poll closed, the story goes, turnout in the local election district exceeded the entire population of Montgomery County.
Eventually, Jewell reported, the community agreed to void the results of the election — save one. While they were drinking, the participants had voted to ban the sale of alcohol. That vote was allowed to stand.
More recently, the ban has become the issue that would not die. The community has voted four times in the past 35 years to uphold the prohibition — but by a narrower margin on each successive occasion. In the most recent referendum, in 1996, the difference was only a few hundred votes.
Residents agree that Damascus has changed since then. Apartment buildings and condominiums have sprouted amid the farms and churches to accommodate a growing population of commuters to Frederick, Baltimore and Washington.
Miller, at the Red Rooster, says the newcomers should have known when they moved in that Damascus is a dry town.
"It's a lot like the guy that buys the house next to the silo, and then he complains that the silo's too loud," he says, as a customer arrives to pick up some takeout. "Well, he shouldn't have bought the house next to the silo."
But the debate doesn't divide neatly between longtime residents and newcomers. David Warfield's grandfather founded Damascus Motor Co. in 1917. Warfield joined the dealership in 1977, after graduating from Damascus High School; he's now general manager.
He says it's "high time" the ban was lifted.
"We've been waiting on it for so long," Warfield says while eating lunch with his parents at Tom and Ray's on Main Street. "The big thing is, you're not going to get any chain restaurants to open in Damascus without it."
Those who favor lifting the ban speak of economic development. Randy Scritchfield, a former president of the local Chamber of Commerce and the Damascus Community Alliance, led the repeal effort in 1996.
"It would definitely bring better restaurants to Damascus, and there would be a lot of collateral positive benefits from that," says Scritchfield, a financial planner. "We have some shopping centers that could use help."
The Rev. Walt Edmonds, pastor of Damascus United Methodist Church, sees such change as unnecessary. While restaurants, stores and other businesses here are prohibited from selling alcoholic beverages, there's no law against residents drinking beer, wine or liquor in their homes.
Edmonds' church hosts two meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. He's not opposed to drinking in moderation, he says, but "we don't need to make it more available."
"Many of the people who moved here years ago moved here so that their children would not be around alcohol, would not have it so prevalent," he says. "This would change the whole atmosphere."
Those who favor lifting the ban say the impact on the community would be minimal. The legislation would require that restaurants selling alcoholic beverages have at least 30 seats and that the drinks be consumed by patrons only while seated.
"This will not bring in bars, it will not bring in pool halls," says Luedtke, the state lawmaker.
But Edmonds describes it as "an entering point." He cites the example of Kensington, a formerly dry town in Montgomery County that decided a decade ago to permit some alcohol sales in restaurants. The community has since lifted other restrictions, most recently allowing local stores to sell beer and wine.
Scritchfield says the "slippery slope" argument helped defeat the referendum in 1996.
"There was a flier put together that says that this license is the same license that a Hooters has in Rockville," he recalls. "Therefore, if we pass this law, we'll end up having a Hooters in Damascus. To which I said, 'Give me a break.' Our demographics did not quite work for a Hooters."
Scritchfield says the issue "gets demagogued."
"That's one of my big frustrations with this. If people vote against this, I want to make sure they know what they're voting against. It's just beer and wine in a sit-down restaurant. It's not liquor. It's not package stores. That still would not be allowed. ... It would take a whole new referendum and a whole new vote."
Juan Barrowes knew Damascus was a dry town when he came for lunch at Tom and Ray's. The Clarksburg man says the current law "probably affects whether I'm hanging out here at night." But he doesn't know whether changing the law would make much difference.
"There's not that many places to hang out here at night anyway," he says. "I don't know whether Damascus is a trend-setting destination regardless of whether it sells alcohol in its restaurants."
The debate has drawn the attention of the state chapter of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the 140-year-old organization that led the charge for Prohibition in the early 20th century.
Bunny S. Galladora, the organization's state president and a retired Montgomery County deputy sheriff, calls alcohol the No. 1 drug problem in America — "often a factor," she says, in murder, suicide, birth defects, choking deaths, drownings, accidents, falls, vehicle crashes, sexual abuse, homelessness and disease.
"Damascus voters have time and time again voted to keep alcohol from being sold in their community," Galladora says. "The community should be commended for their strong stand. ... Their voting record on this issue is clear and should be respected."
State Sen. Karen S. Montgomery acknowledges the opposition, but says it's time for another vote. The Montgomery County Democrat is backing the legislation after what she calls "a very good meeting" with Traverso and others.
"A lot of people have concerns," she says. "We will put it on the ballot so they can decide."
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