Proposed Legislation Calls Future of Owl’s Nest into Question

The Owl’s Nest – the beer garden that Everett’s Night Shift Brewing operates on the Charles River Esplanade – just wrapped up a second successful season last week, but its future could now hinge on proposed legislation that would put further restrictions on Boston’s beer gardens.

Senate Bill 158, co-sponsored by Sens. Ed Kennedy of Lowell and Nick Collins of South Boston, would prevent beer garden operators from getting any more than 14 one-day licenses in a year while the current yearly limit caps it at 30 licenses per applicant. While its language has yet to be finalized, the legislation could potentially stymie many of the city’s beer gardens, which operate seasonally with multiple parties applying for a series of one-day licenses, as well as nonprofits depending on one-day licenses to host fundraising events: In the case of the Owl’s Nest, which operates in a self-contained area of the park at the Storrow Memorial Embankment Park (Fiedler Field), its proceeds benefit the Esplanade Association and the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation and help underwrite the cost of park maintenance. (Through a similar partnership with the two groups, Night Shift also runs another beer garden at Christian A. Herter Park in Allston.)

Jennifer Myers, communications director for the Office of State Sen. Ed Kennedy, wrote: “The intent of the bill is to curtail the use of  ‘one-day’ liquor licenses for sometimes months at a time and to start the ball rolling on the creation of some kind of seasonal license that would be more fair. The intent of a one-day license was originally to be used for special events or festivals – not for operations that are semi-permanent for several months per year. Right now they are operating through loopholes in the system, receiving multiple one-day licenses by putting them under the names of different individuals.”

Myers added that the bill isn’t intended to target nonprofits that might otherwise not be able to afford a year-round liquor license, however.

“If the bill moves forward those concerns would have to be addressed and the language of the bill amended to come up with a solution that makes sense for all entities involved,” Myers wrote.

Sen. Collins said he agreed to co-sponsor the bill after a constituent expressed concerns about the Cisco beer garden in the Seaport, which operates in his district, as a way to get the conversation started on how to best regulate beer gardens.

“The goal isn’t to put anyone out of business, but to have better rules in place…and certain rules that everyone can abide by,” Sen. Collins said.

In the case of beer gardens on the Esplanade and the Greenway, Collins said not only are they very popular with patrons and have a positive impact on the city’s public spaces, but also unlike in other parts of the city where competition between would-be proprietors is encouraged, these beer gardens represent a union between the land owner and its preferred vendor.

A House subcommittee on temporary liquor licenses held its first hearing on the matter last month, at which time Sen. Collins testified that seasonal beer gardens would be best regulated by creating a home-rule petition, like the City of Boston has done, or by giving the authority to local municipalities.

The City Council is currently considering a home-rule petition filed by Mayor Martin J. Walsh that would then makes its way to the state legislature, seeking 184 nontransferable liquor licenses for distribution to new neighborhood restaurants by the city, not the state.

“I am committed to ensuring that liquor licenses in Boston are used as an economic development tool to uplift our neighborhoods and support our restaurants,” Mayor Walsh wrote. “My administration is working to secure passage of legislation that will increase the number of licenses for our neighborhood establishments. This bill creates a new process for large-scale developments to ensure that the new licenses that would be generated from the proposal are preserved for local businesses. I look forward to hearing discussions about additional liquor license proposals during the City Council and State Legislature public process.”

Michael Nichols, executive director of the Esplanade Association, said the group “completely opposes the [state] legislation as written” and testified during a July 15 Senate hearing that it “would effectively legislate beer and wine gardens out of existence in Massachusetts.”

“We believe the ability to have Night Shift operate the Owls Nets on the Esplanade the last two summers has been a total ‘value add’ for visitors and in providing crucial funds to support the ongoing health of the park,” Nichols said. “It provides not only a destination in the park for food and beverages, but a place for people to meet and spend time before and after other events on the Esplanade.”

During its inaugural 2018 season, Nichols said the Owl’s Nest attracted 50,000 patrons, and while he couldn’t provide the number of guests who visited the beer garden this year, he expects the number was nearly twice as many.

Michael Oxton, a co-founder of Night Shift Brewing, also couldn’t provide an attendance, but said the Owl’s Nest “welcomed thousands of Bostonians into our Owl’s Nest beer gardens this summer.”

“We see and hear the positive impact our beer gardens have on our community,” Oxton said. “We are committed to finding the best path forward that ensures beer gardens a future in [Massachusetts].” 

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