Two residents, however, are campaigning to change that. They’ve successfully pushed for alcohol sales to be on the ballot in November, and they’re leading a coalition of 150 to 200 residents to get their neighbors to vote.
Although similar measures have failed before, supporters of lifting the ban say they think it has a good chance of passing this time because Damascus has gone through significant changes as growth and development have continued to make the once-rural town more of a suburb.
Much of the area’s farmland has become townhouses, and an influx of young families has created a town more receptive to having a drink with dinner. The population exploded from 8,486 in 1980 to 19,949 in 2010, according to census data.
“The demographics of Damascus have changed significantly, and the town has degraded significantly . . . so something needs to be done,” said James Traverso, 55, who is co-leading the coalition with his wife.
Supporters of the referendum say they are worried about the town’s future: Its commercial center has many vacant lots, and they argue that lifting the ban would attract better restaurants and help stimulate growth.
The referendum asks for a minor change: Only beer and light wine would be served, and only at certain restaurants. But opponents fear that lifting the ban even a little could lead to more expansive alcohol sales in the future — or, worse, bars and carry-out liquor stores. They added that they wanted to protect children from early exposure to alcohol.
“Once you open the door, the door goes all the way open,” said Gary Richard, 60, who owns a 116-acre farm and two gas stations in the area and is a major opponent of the referendum.
Technically, local volunteer firefighters are allowed to sell alcohol on special temporary licenses. But for decades, residents have fought against allowing permanent liquor licenses for restaurants and stores.
The issue has been a divisive one for about 130 years. In 1880, Montgomery became a dry county because residents thought alcoholism was a major social problem, according to county historical documents. Four years later, when Damascus became its own election district, some residents put the issue back on the ballot.
On Election Day 1884, King’s Distillery, the only distillery in the county at the time, passed out cups of rye to those who voted in Damascus, according to an account by a county historian. Voters were so happy with the free booze that they went in line to vote again, and soon residents from outside Damascus and even outside the county came to vote. When election judges tallied the votes, there were more ballots than residents in Montgomery.
The county invalidated the election results — except for the ballot question on alcohol.