Dry municipalities are those that do not allow the sale of wine, spirits and/or malt and brewed beverages within their borders. Dry municipalities have existed in Pennsylvania dating back to before Prohibition. At the end of Prohibition in 1933, state law made alcohol sales a local option: voters in each municipality could retain the ban on the sale of alcohol (stay dry) or allow the sale of such products (go wet). Over the years, some municipalities that were dry have voted to become wet, and some that were wet have voted to become dry.
As of August 2017, 686 Pennsylvania municipalities are at least partially dry. A municipality can be totally dry and prohibit the sale of all alcoholic beverages, or it can allow certain alcohol sales while prohibiting others. Dozens of municipalities in Pennsylvania are partially dry and partially wet. Some allow retail beer sales (you can buy a six-pack at a pizza parlor, for example) while prohibiting retail liquor sales (you cannot buy a mixed drink or a glass of wine at that same pizza parlor). Some prohibit the sale of retail liquor and beer while allowing beer distributors or Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores to operate. And some are totally dry, but have made an exception for ventures such as golf courses or performing arts venues.
A municipality can switch from dry to wet or from wet to dry. The Pennsylvania Liquor Code prescribes that in order to switch there must be a local referendum to change which alcohol sales a municipality allows or prohibits. The issue may not be voted on more than once in a four year period. A referendum can be broad – for example, it may seek to permit all forms of alcohol sales in a municipality – or it can be very narrow, allowing only a specific golf course to sell alcohol. Before a referendum may be placed on the ballot, a petition with a number of signatures equal to at least 25 percent of the highest vote cast for any office in that municipality in the preceding general election must be filed with the local board of elections. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (“LCB”) does not maintain statistics regarding the success or failure rate of local option referendums.
When a municipality receives a majority of votes to prohibit the granting liquor licenses, the LCB cannot issue or renew those types of licenses when they expire. An existing license may be transferred to a wet municipality in the same county, or it could be put into safekeeping. There is one exception to this – the so-called “50-year” or “1950” exception: The 1950 exception can only occur if a license is located in a second-class township in a third-class county, the license was issued prior to 1950 and the premises has been licensed for at least 50 years.
Once a municipality receives a majority of votes to permit alcohol sales and those votes are certified, the LCB will accept liquor license applications for establishments in the newly wet municipality. However, residents in affected municipalities can appeal the vote, which might affect the issuing of licenses.
The LCB cannot issue new retail liquor licenses or malt beverage distributor licenses if the newly wet municipality is in a county that is at or over its quota. Licenses existing in other municipalities in the county would have to be transferred into the newly wet municipality. Retail liquor and malt beverage distributor licenses cannot be transferred across county lines.
– J. Ken Butera