If tradition prevails, Montgomery town will stay dry


DAMASCUS -- At the Little Italy Ristorante, the food is continental and the wine selection best described as Puritan. That is, there is none.

Not there or anywhere else in this northern Montgomery County town of about 16,000. No wine, no beer, no booze. It's been that way as long as anyone can remember. And if the forces of tradition once again prevail in November, so it will remain: Damascus, forever dry.

"We get a lot of people who live in Damascus who ask for a glass of wine" with their meal, said Saeed Javadpour, who opened the Little Italy three years ago. "You tell them it's a dry town. They laugh."

By Election Day, anyone who pays any attention around here will know that purveyors of suds and spirits find no quarter in Damascus, the farming and commuting town with the biblical name and the Methodist roots.

By Nov. 3, the lines will have been drawn and the debate grown heated on a referendum to allow liquor sales in the 12th Election District, which also includes Woodfield and part of Cedar Grove.

"This is the hottest bet in town," said Nancy Aldous of Damascus, who has long been active in community affairs and serves on the staff of at-large County Councilor Michael Subin. "There are very strong feelings on both sides."

So it was in 1976, when the move was shot down 3-1, and in 1984, when voters rejected the referendum by a 3-2 margin.

Since 1984, though, the number of registered voters has jumped more than one-third to 8,057 as the overall population has nearly doubled in a decade. Some folks are wondering if this time the newcomers -- many of them refugees from high home prices to the south -- just might outvote longtime residents who prefer the old ways.

Then again, one staunch opponent of the referendum says the people who have recently moved to the area have come seeking a different way of life, a way of life symbolized by the absence of bars and liquor stores.

"Damascus has been a family town since its inception," said Walter Edmonds, pastor of the Damascus United Methodist Church, one of 14 churches in and immediately surrounding the town. "It's not like an oasis where nobody drinks. That's not the issue. It's the style of the community."

Longtime resident Emmet Howard, a real estate agent, agrees. He's got nothing against drinking, and might even enjoy a glass of wine in a local restaurant, but he likes telling prospective customers about the clean, small-town atmosphere.

Mr. Edmonds attributed some of the community's character to the fact that many of the town's original settlers were Methodists and that the Damascus area is home to five Methodist churches.

It's not clear exactly when liquor sales were last allowed in the 12th District, but it remains one of six areas of Montgomery County where alcohol sales are either banned outright or limited, said Donna Bilger, an information officer for County Executive Neal Potter.

The impetus to lift the restriction came this year from the Chamber of Commerce, which asked the County Council to put the question on the ballot. After the council agreed last week, the chamber backed away from the issue, as President Earl Smith told the Frederick News-Post that the organization would not take a position either way.

Carrying the "Vote Yes" banner this year, as he has in the past, is Harry Burdette, who owns a laundromat and carwash in town. He says the liquor ban is bad for business.

"If somebody wants a gallon of milk and a six-pack of beer, they're not going to come to Damascus," says Mr. Burdette, adding that the nearest liquor stores are about three or four miles away.

He points to the half-empty shopping center across the road and a few other vacant storefronts in town as evidence that Damascus needs help. He acknowledges that allowing liquor sales will not turn Damascus into a commercial hub, but says "it can't hurt," especially as a catalyst for more restaurant business.

Although Mr. Edmonds says this is not a temperance battle, referendum opponents in 1984 fought as if it were. Their fliers warned of the dangers of alcoholism and teen-age drinking and asked, "Do you want to hold the line on our nation's most serious DRUG?"

Silas Beall, who served as treasurer of the last two anti-referendum campaigns, says those arguments will prevail again.

"People don't want it in Damascus, they know it lowers the whole value of everything," said Mr. Beall. "They got children around, they don't want them to get involved with it."

Mr. Burdette says he needs to look no further than the empty beer cans in his laundromat trash bags to know that people in Damascus, including young people, will find alcohol if they want it, ban or no ban.

Mr. Javadpour says he's certain he's losing customers to out-of-town restaurants that serve alcohol. He can't vote in the referendum because he doesn't live in the district, but he's hoping for a "yes" vote in the fall.

"The bottom line is, one glass of wine won't hurt Damascus," he says.

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