By Jaimie Julia Winters

After years of teetering on the brink, Montclair’s population has surpassed 39,000, and with that growth comes a new liquor license that could earn millions of dollars for the township.

A 1947 New Jersey law allows one consumption license per 3,000 residents. With Montclair’s official population resting at 38,977 as of the 2010 U.S. Census, the township was allowed 12 consumption (restaurant/bar) and 13 plenary (carry-out) licenses. When township clerk Linda Wanat took over that position in 1998, Montclair was just 200 people shy of the total required for a 13th bar license.

But last week when the most recent estimate of Montclair’s population by the U.S. Bureau of the Census came to 39,277, an increase of 0.77 percent attributable to the rise of multi-family developments, the town became officially eligible for a 13th consumption license.

In the past, towns had to wait for the 10-year Census count in order to qualify for another liquor license. But the state amended the provision to allow the estimated Census that comes out every July to be used as an official tally. Wanat was notified last Thursday, July 19, that Montclair finally reached the population needed for another license. The council voted on allowing for the new license at Tuesday night’s meeting.

In recent years, competition for the handful of licenses among the roughly 300 restaurants in Montclair has driven prices into the millions.

In March, Dai Kichi restaurant on Valley Road sold its license for a staggering $1.25 million, the highest price paid in Montclair’s history.

Last year, South Park sold its license to Fin Raw Bar for $1.2 million, while the Pig & Prince paid $755,000 to acquire its license back in 2012.

Wanat said there are two methods of selling the license. The historical method is to host an auction where a minimum bid is set by the township and then buyers place bids, driving up the price. As the historical method is seldom used the town will probably go out to bid, Wanat said.

The council also voted on the allowance of a hotel liquor license. The state recently approved the town’s application for the license in the case of a 100-room hotel. The MC Hotel, with 159 rooms, is scheduled to open in early 2019 on Bloomfield Avenue.

Thirteen distribution licenses are also permitted in Montclair and currently only 11 are active.

Liquor licenses, which were priced as low as $10,000 20 years ago, are now hitting the million-dollar mark across the state. Although the licenses are privately owned, the number of licenses per town is regulated by population and formulated to keep the number low.

At one time Montclair had 48 liquor licenses. In the mid 1800s, the number of saloons rapidly climbed from 16 to 48 in Montclair creating almost a bar on “every dark corner.” At that time, a liquor license was easily obtained. All it took was 12 men to sign an application requesting a liquor license and $40 payable to the County of Newark, where a judge would approve the application, according to Henry Whittemore’s book, “History of Montclair Township.”

The current law based on population has created a monopoly driving up prices that only a few can afford, said Dr. Morris A. Davis, Chair of Real Estate and Professor of Finance and Economics at Rutgers University.

A bill, stalled for years in Assembly Regulatory Oversight and Reform and Federal Relations Committee, would not only allow municipalities to create an unlimited number of special licenses for restaurants, but also at a more affordable price for potential restaurateurs. At the discretion of the town, special licenses could be issued to restaurants up to 3,000 feet with an initial fees of $3,000 and for eateries up to 6,000 feet at $10,000. Restaurant owners could also apply for a beer and wine license at $1,500 and $5,000 as initial fees.

The special licenses would be subject to the same annual renewal fee as current licenses of $2,500.

The 1947 law also grants towns the option of not issuing consumption licenses. Rutherford, where bars are zoned out of downtown and BYOB is the popular option for restaurant goers, didn’t offer consumption licenses until the 1990s and have two that remain unsold.

In Montclair however, Wanat said offering more licenses is good for the businesses and the residents in town.

“It has been my personal mission to get more licenses for Montclair,” Wanat said.