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Easthampton board endorses liquor licenses for Popcorn Noir and Riff’s Joint after heated meeting

Whoops and applause filled the meeting room as many of the 40 people in attendance cheered the 2-1 vote in support of the two businesses, Popcorn Noir and Riff’s Joint.

Emotions ran high as members of the public questioned board members’ methods and accused one of trying to block the endorsement. Other current license holders urged the board to establish a process for deciding who can seek an above-quota license.

Chairman Raymond Redfern and board member Jason Duda voted in favor of the endorsement, while member William Sullivan voted against it.

According to state law, each municipality gets one liquor license per 1,000 residents, meaning Easthampton gets 17. But businesses can seek licenses above that quota with the approval of the Licensing Board, the City Council, the mayor and the state Legislature.

Riff’s Joint, a restaurant in the Eastworks building, and Popcorn Noir, a theater and restaurant on Cottage Street, have licenses to serve alcohol from April 1 to Jan. 15, but the owners of both establishments said that not being able to serve it for 2½ months forces them to lay off employees and reduces income.

Riff’s Joint co-owner Jeff Cahill said he was ecstatic about the endorsement after the “long and drawn-out” process. He said he and his partner, Richard Lyman, have been building a bar adjacent to their restaurant that may open as soon as three weeks from now. He said they are hopeful that the above-quota license will be issued before January, when they cannot serve under their current license.

“I think the most important thing tonight was the support of the community,” Kristen Davis, co-owner of Popcorn Noir, said after the meeting.

Duda said during the meeting that since the board allowed the two businesses to serve alcohol for most of the year, there was little reason to deny them a year-round license.

Resident Elaine Wood agreed. “That 2½ months is not going to hurt anyone,” she said. “I think this is the right thing to do to help the community.”

Michael Lavalle, owner of the Brass Cat on Cottage Street, said he was concerned that if he tried to sell his liquor license in the future, it would not be worth much if other establishments could continue to seek above-quota licenses.

“My concerns are not pro or con these two fine businesses,” he said. “At some point, this has to have a definitive process and way of happening. If it continues unabated, then there’s (going to) be just too many licenses and it dilutes everybody’s hard work.”

Apollo Grill owner Casey Douglass, who received an above-quota license endorsement from the License Board in April, agreed. “Unless you set parameters, it’s hard to shut that door,” he said.

The above-quota licenses will not cost the businesses more than the annual municipal fee of just over $1,000 that all licensees pay.

Sullivan failed to interest his fellow board members in an alternative at the meeting. He drafted a petition that, if approved by city government and the Legislature, would convert the two seasonal licenses to year-round licenses provided the applicants each paid a $15,000 application fee over five years. It would also allow the board to revoke and reissue the licenses to other establishments if either of the applicants failed to use the license for one year.

Over the last decade, Northampton has used similar home rule petitions to convert seasonal licenses to year-round ones.

But city resident Morgan Mitchell accused Sullivan of using the petition as a way to block or delay the licenses, which Sullivan denied.

Next the City Council needs to vote whether to endorse the licenses. If the council and the mayor endorse them, the licenses will go to the Senate floor for a vote.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

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