The same disdain for alcohol that drove Christian clergymen to establish this Jersey shore town that calls itself America's Greatest Family Resort led voters to overwhelmingly reject a proposal Tuesday that would have let restaurant patrons bring their own wine or beer to enjoy with dinner.
A referendum on whether BYOB should be allowed was soundly rejected by a 2-to-1 margin. Final unofficial tallies showed the referendum received 3,137 “no” votes, and 1,425 “yes” votes.
Turnout was heavy in what one polling worker compared to the number of voters who would turn out for a presidential election.
The question had divided this family friendly resort, where beauty pageants, hermit crab races and french fry sculptures are highlights of the summer.
“The charm of this town is being dry,” said Edward Dolceamore, owner of the Tradewinds Motel, where an electronic message board flashed “No BYOB in Ocean City” on Election Day. “There are less crimes and drugs here because it's dry. Leave it alone; don't mess with it.”
The issue is one that has roiled Ocean City for decades. The referendum had been framed as a struggle between traditionalists who fear that allowing drinking at restaurants would wreck the family-friendly atmosphere Ocean City has worked hard to build and those who say the city's struggling eateries can't afford to lose any more business to mainland restaurants that serve liquor.
Ken Cooper, a leader of the effort to reject the proposal, said being a dry resort has always been the bedrock of Ocean City's appeal.
“People come to Ocean City because of the no alcohol,” he said. “That's the reason why people vacation here or buy homes here. It sets us apart and makes us a family resort.”
Had the measure been approved, it would have taken effect immediately. A common joke heard in City Hall among residents who gathered to watch vote results come in was, “How much you got in your car?”
Some restaurants informally tolerated BYOB until a 1984 city ordinance prohibited it. The ballot question dealt only with the consumption of alcohol at restaurants; businesses still wouldn't be allowed to sell it.
Ocean City dates to 1700, when whaler John Peck began using the barrier island as a place to store freshly caught whales. In 1879, four Methodist ministers bought what was then called Peck's Beach to establish a Christian seaside resort.
One of its main features was to be a permanent ban on the manufacture and sale of alcohol, something Ocean City has used as a selling point since the 1890s.
In 1891, a city promotional ad boasted: “A striking peculiarity of this city by the sea is that there are no liquor saloons or places of questionable character within its bounds. The sale of liquor is forever prohibited, and as a result, the best classes of people are drawn here, and disorder and drunkenness are unknown.” A 1908 ad proclaimed “many churches; no saloons,” and a 1916 ad campaign described Ocean City as “absolutely free from saloons and all kindred evils.”
The measure would have excluded boardwalk businesses from BYOB and set no limit on the amount of beer or wine a customer can consume with dinner. It would have set BYOB hours from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m.
A commonly voiced fear among BYOB opponents is that Ocean City would become overrun with drunken young adults who have changed the reputation of other boardwalk towns along the Jersey shore. Seaside Heights is a frequently mentioned boogeyman here, as is the MTV show “Jersey Shore,” which is set there.
But supporters say Ocean City's restaurants are struggling to hang on while playing at a disadvantage to competitors just a few miles away that offer full bars.
Ocean City has lost nearly a quarter of its year-round population in just the past 10 years, falling to 11,701 residents. That, supporters say, makes it even more imperative for Ocean City businesses to keep customers in the city rather than watching them drive off the barrier island to enjoy a drink with dinner.
Fan, follow and download: Get the latest from NBCPhiladelphia.com anytime, anywhere. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and NBC Philadelphia. Sign up for our breaking news newsletter. And, get breaking news delivered right to your mobile phone -- just text PHIBREAKING to 639710 to sign up. (Message and data rates may apply.)