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Alcohol license transfer falls short in Cape May

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Marcus Karavan discusses plans to sell alcohol in a leased area of The Southern Mansion in Cape May. A City Council vote approving the change fell short on Tuesday.

CAPE MAY — A proposed million-dollar liquor license transfer before Cape May City Council failed this week for a lack of votes after a lengthy discussion.

With one member absent, two votes for and one against, Cape May Mayor Zack Mullock at first thought the measure passed, but city attorney Christopher Gillin-Schwartz said the resolution needed three votes, a majority on the five-member council.

Mullock is a neighbor of the property and had decided to abstain. After the vote on Tuesday, he stuck with that decision.

The license was set to be transferred from The Merion Inn to a new company to allow the sale of alcohol to guests of The Southern Mansion on Washington Street. According to Marcus Karavan, an attorney representing the applicant, the license would only have been used to sell beverages to guests at special events or to “guests with room keys” staying at the Inn.

Others would not be able to walk in and order a drink, he said.

The liquor license for The Merion Inn on Decatur Street became available when the building was purchased by the owners of the Mad Batter on Jackson Street, according to Mullock, who said both businesses, adjoining in the back, now operate under a single license.

But state laws prevent The Southern Mansion from acquiring the license, because owner Barbara Wilde also owns Willow Creek Winery in West Cape May, Mullock said. State law prevents someone from simultaneously holding two types of licenses to sell alcohol, in this case a farm winery license and a plenary license.

Her daughter, Hamilton Wilde, founded New Jersey Farmers Cooperative Group LLC, taking the name from a non-profit organization of which Barbara Wilde is the director.

Documentation provided to City Council states that the Southern Mansion is owned by the Bray Family Partnership, in which Hamilton Wilde holds no interest, while Barbara Wilde holds no ownership or interest in New Jersey Farmers Cooperative Group LLC.

As proposed, the new LLC would sell alcohol within the Southern Mansion, leasing the area within the other business.

“It’s complicated,” Mullock said Wednesday.

It was complicated enough that the primary concern expressed by members of City Council was that the matter should have been brought before the Zoning Board for more thorough consideration. Loraine Baldwin, the lone vote against the transfer, said she believed the matter required a use variance for the Southern Mansion, although the city’s zoning officials decided it did not.

Council member Shaine Meier, a vote for approval, also said he would have liked the Zoning Board to give input.

Council discussed the issue for more than two hours on Tuesday, after delaying a decision at a previous meeting.

“We were hoping for more information,” Mullock said.

Several neighbors spoke at the meeting, questioning the plan and its potential impact on their quality of life. Council member Stacy Sheehan, who did not attend the meeting, did send a message that she opposed the approval of the license transfer.

Council member Michael Yeager said the proposal could be an improvement. The Southern Mansion already hosts weddings, and alcohol is served at most of those events. The end result could just be better trained bartenders at weddings and a convenience for the guests when there is not an event underway.

Karavan said larger weddings would be held at the Willow Creek winery. At the meeting, he said the purchase price for the license under the agreement of sale was more than $1 million.

Contacted after the vote, Karavan declined to comment on the decision.

Speaking to council on Tuesday, Karavan said his clients had agreed to several concessions, both at the request of the city and from neighbors before the meetings.

“We met with the residents on Corgie Street. We listened to their concerns, and we believe we came up with a plan that will work for everyone,” Karavan said. Corgie is a narrow, one-way street running parallel to Washington Street, home to the closest neighbors of the Southern Mansion.

According to the inn’s website, the sprawling building was built in 1863 as a private home, later seeing use as a boarding house before falling into disrepair. The current owners began extensive renovations in 1994, with the project completed in 1997.

Mullock said he decided to abstain from the vote because he is a neighbor, close enough that he would have received notice if the proposal did require a use variance.

That led to the 2-1 vote. Even if the final vote were delayed, it would have likely been 2-2, with Sheehan’s stated opposition. After teh vote, council held a brief recess for Mullock to discuss with Gillin-Schwartz whether he needed to abstain. He decided to stick with his decision rather than change it based on the result.

In May, the Merion Inn announced it would not open this summer. The building has operated as a restaurant since 1885 and as the Merion Inn since 1906, according to a history posted by the former owners, who said they did not sell the business or the name.

In its place at 106 Decatur will be The Cricket Club.

Contact Bill Barlow:


Twitter @jerseynews_bill

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Seven years ago, when Cape May native Ross Hammer was forced to drop out of Drexel University just before his senior year, he had no money, no plans and no clue what to do with his life. When a move to Hong Kong to work with his estranged father fell through, leaving him penniless and deserted in a faraway land, he felt he had hit rock bottom.

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