By Joan Bowen
At the March 2 meeting of the Selectmen, two items on the agenda centered on the future development of restaurants in Bedford. The Selectmen offered the opportunity for citizen input on the number of additional liquor licenses Bedford will request from the State if Article 9 passes at the March Town Meeting. In addition, the Selectmen discussed whether or not they would make a recommendation to the Zoning Board of Appeals regarding the application of Red Heat Tavern for a special permit to operate as a restaurant at the Bedford Marketplace. Several members of the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals plus approximately 15 residents attended and participated in the discussions.
Article 9 – A Home Rule Petition for Additional Liquor Licenses
The Town Warrant includes an article that would authorize a home rule petition to the Massachusetts Legislature for an increase in the number of full liquor licenses the Selectmen are empowered to issue. The limit is currently 14 based on Bedford’s night-time population. All current licenses have been granted. The Selectmen are proposing that the petition request eight additional licenses.
Shawn Hanegan, Chair of the Planning Board, opened the discussion by stating that his Board is in the process of implementing the Comprehensive Plan that was adopted last year (www.bedfordma.gov/planning/pages/comprehensive-plan). Pointing out that the Plan is the result of a long process of gathering citizen input on the desired future for Bedford, he said that “one of the Plan’s major themes is a vision of walkable centers at different locations in town, with mixed use including restaurants. Some of this development is just starting, and some is expected in the near future. Since Bedford’s liquor licenses have currently all been issued, we have a need for more licenses in order to attract the range of restaurant options that are envisioned in the Plan. These new restaurants would enhance the vibrancy of these walkable centers.”
Comments offered by other attendees repeated the interest in having more restaurants within Bedford. The interest is not in having more fast food options but in restaurants that provide a variety of options with a focus on family-style eateries where parents can take their children, confident that there is food that will appeal to all and that there will be drinks available to adults. Several participants commented that they are frustrated by having to look outside Bedford for this type of restaurant, whether it be with their family or with a group of friends. As Lyn Harrison, 76 Fletcher Road, pointed out, being able to secure a liquor license is a critical element to ensuring financial success for a potential restaurant operator and critical to the Town in order to attract the restaurants that will provide what Bedford citizens seek.
Town Administrator Rick Reed was asked why the request is for eight additional licenses. He responded that there is nothing scientific about the number. The case will be made on the basis of the daytime population of Bedford, factoring in the number of people who are in Bedford to work or who are travelling through. The daytime population is estimated to be significantly larger than the residential or night-time population which the State used to authorize the current 14 licenses. He said there is no guarantee that Bedford will be granted this increase. He anticipates that six may be what Bedford receives, although there is no analysis of past decisions on prior applications for additional licenses. There was a brief discussion about asking for 10 additional licenses but no action was taken to formalize a change in the number.
Carol Amick, 18 Crescent Avenue, expressed her support of the intent to expand the number of available licenses but urged caution. Her concern is that future restaurants should be in keeping with the small-town character of Bedford. She urged continuance of current restrictions on alcohol licenses such as the two drink limit without a food order. As a member of the Planning Board, Amy Lloyd responded that good controls are in place. Restaurants require a special permit and that process takes into account the size of the facility in relationship to its location and the potential impact on the surrounding area.
Town Meeting passage of Article 9 authorizing the home rule petition to the Legislature is the first step of what may take 18 to 24 months. Our State Representative Ken Gordon will be asked to file the petition and then the process will be at the mercy of the legislative calendar. Selectman Margot Fleischman was confident that Representative Gordon will be an active advocate on behalf of the Town. The Board thanked participants in the discussion for their thoughtful comments.
Red Heat Tavern’s upcoming Zoning Board of Appeals hearing
Next the Selectmen discussed the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) upcoming hearing on the application for the Red Heat Tavern for a special permit to locate a restaurant within the Bedford Marketplace. This was intended to be a discussion of the Selectmen, not an open discussion. The question was whether or not the Selectmen would provide a recommendation to the ZBA at its hearing postponed to March 12. The Selectmen have already granted an alcohol and common victualer’s license to the Red Heat Tavern but it is within ZBA authority to grant the special permit to operate as a restaurant at a given location.
Selectman Caroline Fedele said that she considers the Red Heat Tavern the right establishment for this location. It will offer a dining option that Bedford does not currently have, a family restaurant with burgers and steaks, the potential for adults to have a drink, and a reasonable price point. At this location it would also serve well as a place for a group of friends to gather after a meeting or for local fundraisers. It covers many of the identified needs for local dining.
Her comments were based on a recent visit to the Red Heat Tavern in Wilmington and discussions with the ownership. The same company earlier operated Victoria Station in Burlington. Currently, it manages the Burtons and Red Heat Tavern brands, with Red Heat offering the same food as Burtons but at a lower price point and a different environment.
Selectman William Moonan stated that he does not support locating the Red Heat Tavern within the Bedford Marketplace. The primary issue for him is the preservation of the small town character of Bedford. The location of a sports bar, as Red Heat Tavern has been characterized, in this neighborhood is not appropriate. He suggested that there are better locations for an establishment like the Red Heat Tavern such as the recently vacated Staples location or on Middlesex Turnpike where there is no neighborhood that would be adversely impacted.
In response Selectman Fleischman said that it is not valid to view the Red Heat Tavern as just a bar with significant noise. There are changing attitudes and behaviors with respect to dining out that need to be recognized. Diners want a diversity of seating options within a restaurant. A bar offers one desired option but the design of the Red Heat Tavern includes other types of seating. The fact that it has a bar does not make it a bar. Further, during the Selectmen’s earlier discussions of the application by the Red Heat Tavern for a liquor license, only one abutter expressed concern about noise, coupled with the hope the location of the Tavern at Bedford Marketplace would move forward.
Fleischman expressed her concern that a ruling against a special permit for the Red Heat Tavern to operate at the Bedford Marketplace would have an adverse impact on future restaurants considering locating in Bedford. She offered to draft a memorandum to the ZBA stating that the Selectmen support the Red Heat Tavern for a special permit. This proposal was approved by a four to one vote, with Selectman Moonan opposed.