Wilkinsburg residents may get vote on liquor sales

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Liquor sales have been illegal in Wilkinsburg since 1936. That may change come May.

The borough held a public meeting Jan. 9 on a possible referendum allowing establishments, most likely restaurants, to obtain liquor licenses.

"This has been a thing that's been going on since at least 2001," said Tracey Evans, executive director of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp.

The borough recently adopted an updated comprehensive plan and a business district revitalization plan, which provide a 10-year plan for the business district.

"These plans were two years in the making," Ms. Evans said, and "one of the recommendations was that we put the ballot initiative" to the voters, following the formerly dry Forest Hills to the southeast, which approved liquor sales 10 years ago.

To put the referendum on the May ballot, the borough needs to collect 2,010 signatures between Feb. 19 and May 12. If it doesn't get those required signatures, the issue can be revisited in two years; if the referendum is defeated at the polls, it may not be raised again until 2017.

Pat Riley from the state Liquor Control Board mentioned at the meeting that under state law the number of liquor licenses would be limited to five for Wilkinsburg, based on one for every 3,000 residents.

But the process is hardly routine. Since no new liquor licenses are being granted in Allegheny County, an establishment seeking to locate in Wilkinsburg would need to obtain one from another location. "When you have a transfer license, you have to have a public hearing," Ms. Evans said.

At the meeting, some residents questioned the wisdom of allowing liquor sales, one noting that over 30 percent of properties in Wilkinsburg were delinquent in taxes and that the borough should make those a priority instead.

State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland park, who attended the meeting, also was cool to the idea. While not opposing the issue of liquor licenses in the borough, Mr. Ferlo raised the issues of proper zoning and what he perceived as the lack of investment in Wilkinsburg vis-a-vis East Liberty and Lawrenceville, two neighborhoods in Pittsburgh that are undergoing renewal.

"Why not do the zoning code right?" Mr. Ferlo said. "I think this [process] puts the cart before the horse. I would urge the community to go back and [establish] consensus." He suggested the referendum be delayed until at least 2015, the next closest date.

Zoning isn't really an issue, Ms. Evans said, because the borough was already updating its zoning laws.

"I think this is the right time and we don't need to wait two more years," Ms. Evans said.


Rick Nowlin: rnowlin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3871.


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