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Bill passage could dampen Damascus

Saturday - 3/17/2012, 6:00am  ET

DAMASCUS -- As one of the few dry communities in Maryland, Damascus may be known for its farms and its football team, but not for its night life. That could change, however; a bill passed Thursday in the House of Delegates would allow sit-down restaurants in Damascus to serve wine and beer.

House Bill 690, which will now move to the Senate, would allow the community's handful of restaurants to serve wine and beer to customers who are seated, but would not allow for the creation of bars or the sale of hard liquor.

"It's about time," said Damascus resident Cindy McKneely as she sat down for lunch at Tom and Ray's, a local restaurant. While she would prefer that alcohol be fully available in Damascus, she said restaurants are "better than nothing."

Not everyone agrees. A similar bill passed in the General Assembly in 1996, but failed by a small margin when residents voted on it in a referendum that fall.

Sen. Karen Montgomery, D-Montgomery, said the Women's Christian Temperance Union in Damascus strongly opposes the legislation, but many other residents have come to her "begging me to put the bill in."

Also in opposition is Mary Bellison, an Urbana resident and owner of Tom and Ray's Restaurant. As someone who has struggled with alcohol in the past, Bellison said that serving it would cause unnecessary problems for the town.

"There's no violence, it's a quiet town," she said. "Why change a good thing?"

Despite her opposition, Bellison said she is unsure whether Tom and Ray's will serve alcohol if the bill passes.

Other residents who have advocated for the bill believe that by drawing in more business, alcohol sales will be more beneficial to the community than problematic.

"They feel that if there is some decent dining there ... people might actually stay in the home area and spend their money right there in Damascus," Montgomery said.

There are only a handful of sit-down restaurants in Damascus, including Tom and Ray's, NY J&P Pizza, Ledo Pizza and The Music Cafe. These establishments would have to meet requirements set by the county liquor board to serve alcohol.

If the bill passes in the Senate and is signed by the governor, it will be up for a referendum in November.

In addition to Damascus, the towns of Barnesville and Washington Grove in Montgomery County are dry, as are the Ballenger, Catoctin, Hauvers, Jackson and Linganore election districts in Frederick County, according to the Web pages of those two counties' liquor boards.