Saying it needs to examine "allegations of bad faith or illegitimate purpose" in a shore town's attempt to make its bars close earlier than they had been closing, the director of the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control issued a stay Friday night of Point Pleasant Beach's midnight bar closing law.
The ruling by ABC director Michael Halfacre keeps the current 2 a.m. bar closing law in place indefinitely.
Point Pleasant Beach's boardwalk bars had sought the action and asked the state to rule on the legality of the ordinance, adopted in May. The borough moved the closing time up until midnight to try to end rowdy early morning behavior by bar patrons returning to their cars in residential neighborhoods.
Although the boardwalk bars challenged the law, it would have applied to all bars and restaurants that serve liquor throughout the borough.
The borough offered the bar businesses an expensive compromise: They could continue to stay open until 2 a.m. if they paid an extra fee based on their occupancy, with the added money going to fund more police patrols in areas where the misbehavior has been the worst.
The borough and the bars negotiated over the amount the businesses would pay, with the bars offering $800,000 over five years. But no agreement was reached, and the dispute escalated into lawsuits and appeals to state regulators. The bars claimed they were being extorted, an argument that seems to have caught the attention of state regulators.
"I am permitted to refuse to apply an ordinance if I determine that the ordinance was entered into in bad faith or for an illegitimate purpose," Halfacre wrote in his ruling. "The substantial factual history here raises at least the need for an inquiry into the allegations of bad faith or illegitimate purpose."
Halfacre said the matter will be reviewed by the state Office of Administrative Law and the 2 a.m. closing time will remain in place at least until those proceedings have ended.
Mayor Vincent Barrella said the state is "subjecting the residents of Point Pleasant Beach to more of the riotous behavior and degradation of quality of life that the 12 a.m. closing sought to quell."
Marilou Halvorsen, a spokeswoman for Jenkinson's Boardwalk, the borough's largest taxpayer and employer, expressed relief that the stay was granted. The Storino family, owner of Jenkinsons, told a Republican gathering Thursday night that had the midnight closing been allowed to take effect, the company would have had to lay off 50 of its 200 year-round full-time employees, according to local news website PointPleasantPatch.com.
"Obviously we are very pleased with the decision," Halvorsen said.
On Wednesday, the bars rejected a compromise that would have set the closing time at 1 a.m., preferring to take their chances with the alcohol control division.
At issue is Point Pleasant Beach's status as one of New Jersey's most popular family resorts. City officials and many residents worry that continued instances of fighting, public urination and defecation, vomiting and screaming by tipsy bar patrons in the wee hours of the morning will drive away family tourism.
But the bars note their economic contribution to the town and say they feel the town wants to take advantage of them financially.
Last summer was widely considered the worst in years in terms of early morning neighborhood disruptions. One woman called police after someone defecated on her front porch. Trash-strewn streets were common sights following weekend nights, with beer bottles and other debris littering lawns and curbs.