Liquor store owners fighting mad

Rakesh Patel, owner of Wine Underground, is one of the liquor store owners contemplating a lawsuit against the city and its new rezoning laws. (Staff photo by Brian Krista / June 23, 2012)

Rakesh Patel can't catch a break as owner of The Wine Underground.

Last year, Patel tried to relocate his upscale, but robbery-prone store from residential Hoes Heights to the nearby Green Spring Tower Square Shopping Center in Medfield. But Patel was rebuffed by community leaders, who said there were too many liquor and wine stores in the area already.

Now, Patel is in danger of being squeezed out of business by the city or forced to move to a commercial area. A new Baltimore City Health Department proposal would effectively ban many wine and liquor stores in residential neighborhoods, including at least five in north Baltimore, as part of the city's first comprehensive rezoning efforts in four decades.

The city has sent letters to stores on the list, informing them of the proposal. Stores include Wine Underground, Roland Park Wines & Liquor, in Rolden, JT's Market & Deli, in Medfield, the Charles Village Schnapp Shop, and New Guilford Liquors, also in the Charles Village area.

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A city Planning Department meeting about the proposal is scheduled for July 12, at 6 p.m., in the city's Benton Building, 417 E. Fayette St.

Health and planning officials are targeting stores that they say are in mostly poor neighborhoods and are a public health nuisance because they have been linked to violent crimes.

City Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot said the plan is based on input from communities and a Johns Hopkins University study that suggests liquor stores are pushing up crime statistics.

But at least four of the five stores in north Baltimore are longtime businesses, whose owners say they are in relatively crime-free communities and get along with their residential neighbors.

A list of 128 stores was released last week but that number has been reduced to 98, because 22 are expected to be become conditional uses and two to become conforming uses as defined by the proposed Transform Baltimore Zoning Code.

"This leaves 98 stores that will either close, move to a location with proper zoning or continue operating at the same location but not sell alcohol," city Health Department spokesman Brian Schleter said.

Fighting mad

Patel has consulted his attorney, Anthony DePastina, for legal advice. DePastina said he and other attorneys representing store owners in similar predicaments are prepared to take the city to court because they think the proposal violates property rights and is unconstitutional.

For Patel, who has owned the store for three of its 13 years, the stakes are high.

"I'll lose everything," he said. "I don't want to go away from my community."

Patel, noting that his store was voted best wine shop in Baltimore by City Paper in 2007, said he supports the city plan conceptually, but that Wine Underground is the wrong example.

"It's not a liquor store in a rundown neighborhood where crime is high. I'm not in that category," he said. "I've been robbed a couple of times, but you can't say just because you got robbed, this is a bad place."

DePastina said the proposal is "throwing the baby out with the bath water."

Patel is not alone in complaining about the city's new plan.

"It was pretty scary to get a letter in the mail (from city officials) saying the city was trying to take our liquor license away," said Jim Amato, owner of Roland Park Wines & Liquor, 4032 Roland Ave. "They make it seem kind of simple — 'Oh, you can just relocate.' They're not giving you many options."

Amato, of Homeland, said he asked City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke for help. He said the store, which he has owned for 11 years, has not received any complaints warranting intervention by city officials.