A judge ruled Wednesday that the township’s attempt to restrict alcohol sales to the Moorestown Mall is invalid, along with the votes of thousands of residents who supported the restriction.
, arguing its restriction of the issuance of liquor licenses to the mall constituted spot zoning and was illegal. The township imposed the restriction in accordance with the will of the voters, .
However, Superior Court Judge Ronald Bookbinder couldn’t find any reasonable justification for keeping alcohol confined to the mall. In his ruling, the judge invalidated the April ordinance limiting liquor sales to the mall, as well as the second ballot question approving the limitation.
Bookbinder sided with East Gate, ruling that the ordinance is an example of spot zoning and the second question an example of zoning by referendum, which are both illegal.
Attorney Anthony Drollas, representing Moorestown Mall owner PREIT, argued there’s plenty of precedence for municipalities restricting the sale of alcohol to a geographic area.
“Because they address the issue of ‘where’ doesn’t make them spot zoning. There’s no question municipalities have very broad authority to determine where alcohol can be sold,” Drollas said. “It’s done every day of the week.”
However, while Bookbinder acknowledged communities have the power to confine alcohol to specific zones—the SRC (Specially Restricted Commercial) zone, for example, which the mall and East Gate both occupy—he said, “When you pick a lot within a zone, that’s where I start to have a problem.”
The second ballot question——restricted alcohol sales to “a full-service restaurant … on the same tax lot as an indoor shopping mall in the SRC zoning district,” i.e. the Moorestown Mall.
In his ruling, Bookbinder rejects the township’s and PREIT’s argument that the restriction of liquor specifically to the mall “protects the character and morals of the township” and “promotes the purposes of the Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL), public health, safety, morals, and general welfare.”
He goes on to write, “The township and PREIT have made these broad determinations without explaining why it is reasonable to sell alcohol on the Moorestown Mall property and not on other similar properties in the SRC district … (The ordinance) benefits particular private interests rather than the collective interests of the community.”
Commenting on the validity of both the ordinance and the ballot question it was based on, Bookbinder states, "A municipality may not simply adopt an ordinance based on voter referendum if the ordinance would be unauthorized by the Legislature."
Moreover, the judge referenced the township’s Master Plan (written in 2009), which recommends restricting alcohol sales to restaurants in a geographic area referred to as “Moorestown Mall/East Gate.”
“The plan treats the Moorestown Mall property and East Gate property as the same area, but the planning board did not provide an explanation for limiting the sale of alcohol to the Moorestown Mall to the exclusion of other properties in the Moorestown Mall/East Gate area and the SRC district,” Bookbinder writes.
Bookbinder’s ruling raises questions about the availability of liquor licenses in Moorestown, since it effectively allows alcohol sales throughout the township—no longer dry after the passage of the first ballot question.
Drollas and township attorney Thomas Coleman raised this concern—since many people voted “Yes” on Question 1 with the belief that they could restrict sales to the mall—and pointed to one particular part of Question 2, which stated licenses would not be available for packaged goods stores.
“It’s still within the purview of township council to not have package stores,” responded Bookbinder, who explained the township is allowed to impose certain restrictions on the licenses.
An informal poll conducted by Patch earlier this year showed the majority of those polled (77 percent) would have no objection to alcohol-serving restaurants in East Gate.
Neither Coleman nor Mayor John Button were prepared to comment on the township’s course of action immediately following the ruling.
“I don’t have enough facts,” said Button. “I’m not going to overreact at the moment … I will wait (to comment) until I have more facts.”
Drollas also declined to comment on whether PREIT would appeal the judge’s ruling.
For his part, East Gate attorney Craig Huber was obviously pleased with the decision. , identifying the as the possible future site of an “American-style bistro,” should the proposal be awarded.
“The town will let us know ultimately whether it will be granted,” Huber said, but was unable to provide any further information.
As for the four licenses PREIT already submitted proposals for, , Bookbinder said nothing has changed. East Gate was not attempting to invalidate those licenses.