Dallas wet-dry Q and A

It’s almost impossible to overemphasize how momentous the upcoming wet-dry petition drive and referendum will be for Dallas, especially for those of us in dry neighborhoods. Most of Dallas has been dry since Prohibition ended, and a wet vote in November would change the social, cultural and economic fabric of the city. In this, it’s probably the largest wet-dry vote in state history, and is one of the largest in recent U.S. history.

That’s why we’ve already written about this here and here, and we’re going to write a lot more, on the blog and in the magazine. Ironically, I’ve been writing about wet-dry issues in the U.S. for more than a decade, for a variety of magazines and newspapers. This also means I know more about the subject than many of the people I have talked to who are involved in the petition drive and possible election, which is probably not a good thing. One misconception: If the referendum gets on the ballot and passes, only grocery stores will be allowed to sell beer and wine. Not so.

As you’ll see below, any retailer that can obtain a state-issued liquor license, whether convenience store or beer barn, will be allowed to sell beer and wine in the previously dry areas. That means there could be an unlimited number of retailers selling alochol in areas where there have not been beer and wine sales in 80 years. This, needless to say, might present zoning and planning issues, especialy in neighborhoods like Oak Cliff. Also a key part of the equation: Turnout in city elections is traditionally low in this part of town, and Oak Cliff runs the risk of having this issue decided for it by neighborhoods north of the Trinity where turnout is much higher, like Lakewood, Preston Hollow and Far North Dallas.

The petition organizers have timed their effort to get the issue on the November ballot. That means this will be a long, nasty and expensive nine months of charges and counter-charges. Hopefully our efforts, starting with this, will help explain what’s going on so you can make up your mind in a sensible fashion. After the jump, nine questions and answers about the petition drive and election:

Q: Wet? Dry? What is all this?

A: When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, each state was allowed to set up its own liquor laws (and, in, fact, each state has different laws). Texas’ system is called local option, where counties, cities, or justice of the peace precincts can vote to go wet, dry or moist. Wet means that all kinds of alcohol can be sold in restaurants and by retailers, while dry means all alcohol sales are illegal. Moist is in the middle — alcohol sales in dry areas in restaurants, for example, using a concept called private clubs. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission explains all this here.

Q: So what does this mean for Dallas?

A: Currently, much of Dallas — Oak Cliff and most of the city south of the Trinity River, Lake Highlands and Far North Dallas — is moist. Retail alcohol sales are illegal, but you can buy wine, beer or spirits in a restaurant that has a private club license. Dallas is wet in an area that roughly extends from I-30 to Walnut Hill/Northwest Highway and White Rock Lake to Irving.

Q: That’s stupid. We must have the most ridiculous laws in the country.

A: Actually, our liquor laws are no sillier than those in the rest of the United States. I wrote about this here. For example, New Yorkers can buy wine and beer in a liquor store, but can’t buy it in a grocery store (and they can’t buy gift bags for their booze in the liquor store, either). In Pennsylvania, there are no "liquor stores;" rather, you buy alcohol from state-owned retailers. Michigan regulates pricing.

Q: What would we be voting on?

A: The petition drive organizers want to get two issues on the ballot. First, to abolish the private club requirements, which are more restrictive than state law for restaurants in wet areas, and which restaurants in dry areas hate. Second, they want to allow retail wine and beer sales throughout Dallas.

Q: If nothing else, that should help with the city’s budget crisis, shouldn’t it? We’ll bring in more sales tax money.

A: Far North Dallas city councilman Ron Natinsky, who supports the petition drive, told me that he sees beer and wine sales as a way to spur economic growth, especially in the parts of Dallas south of the Trinity River. He said the studies he has seen say beer and wine sales could add $20 million annually to sales tax revenues, or about 10 percent of the what the city takes in now.

Q: Besides, I don’t like Unicards — and I really want to be able to buy a bottle of wine in the grocery store.

A: Which you’ll be able to do if the issue gets on the ballot and passes. You’ll also be able to buy that bottle of wine in a convenience store, gas station or any other retailer, like a beer barn and a wine- and beer-only liquor store, that qualifies for a state-issued liquor license.

Q: You’re kidding me, right? I thought I read that the referendum would permit wine and beer sales only in grocery stores.

A: Nope. State law (you can look it up in section 501.035 of the Texas Election Code) doesn’t allow for that sort of distinction. You can vote to go wet or you can vote to go dry. You can’t vote to allow retail sales in only certain kinds of stores.

Q: But the city can regulate that, right? After all, there must be thousands of convenience stores in Dallas.

A: More than 15,000 actually. And the city’s hands are tied, said attorney Andy Siegel, one of the state’s foremost authorities on liquor law (and no relation). He says state law trumps local law, so the city council can’t restrict retail sales to certain kinds of retailers. There are zoning tools available, Siegel says, but this is one of  those situations where the council has to do the zoning very carefully and even-handedly, or the city will end up in court losing yet another lawsuit.

Q: Are you trying to scare me?

A: Nope. In fact, I’m a wine writer in one of my other lives, and I personally think most dry laws are outdated and should be abolished. But if the retail issue gets on the ballot and passes, Dallas is going to face a situation that is unprecedented in its history. As a voter and a taxpayer, that’s something I want to know more about.


WANT MORE?
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Oak Cliff.