Wegmans liquor store hearing

Opposition attorney Thomas Beach (left) shows Columbia Wegmans liquor store majority owner Christopher O'Donnell an advertisement for wine in a Wegmans food magazine. (Jon Sham/Patuxent Homestead / July 30, 2012)

The official motion to deny a liquor license for a store on the second floor of the recently opened Columbia Wegmans was based on the determination that the store was "not necessary for the accommodation of the public."

But members of the county Alcoholic Beverage Hearing Board had several other concerns about the store, including a state law banning liquor licenses from being issued "in conjunction with or on the premise of" chain stores, the store's impact on nearby liquor stores and the inexperience of the man who is the public face of the store.

Those concerns prompted the board, in a unanimous decision July 30, to reject a liquor license application from Columbia Wine Partners LLC, which was seeking to sell beer, wine and hard liquor from about 9,800 square feet of leased space on the second floor of the recently opened Wegmans in Columbia.

"It's far, far, far too murky for me," board member Harry Evans said.

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The partners in Columbia Wine Partners are two people: Christopher O'Donnell, of Rochester, N.Y., and Michael Smith, of Ellicott City.

O'Donnell, the husband of Wegmans President Colleen Wegman, owns 90 percent of the proposed liquor store through IAD LLC, a company registered in Delaware, of which he is the sole member.

The other 10 percent of store is owned by Smith, an attorney who started doing labor employment law work for Wegmans when the supermarket chain began moving into the Washington area about a decade ago, he previously told the Howard County Times.

Board member Anne Santos made the official motion to deny the application based on lack of public need.

"I'm not hearing the community come out and tell me there's a need for this," she said, noting only one person not directly affiliated with the application testified in support of it.

However, Tom Meachum, O'Donnell's and Smith's attorney, disagreed.

"I think there is a need," he said after the board's decision. "What is unfortunate is there wasn't a way to generate the appearance of more supporters."

Asked about the possibility of an appeal, Meachum said: "It's premature. You have to wait and see what the written decision says."

Once the board issues its written decision, Columbia Wine Partners will have 10 days to file an appeal to the Liquor Board, which is the County Council sitting on matters involving liquor licenses. The Liquor Board would then hold a public hearing, in which only the attorneys from either side can speak, to decide if it should rehear the full case.

'No need' for store

The lack of public need for the proposed liquor store was one of the many points argued by opposition attorneys Thomas C. Beach III and J. Steven Wise. The two attorneys represented three existing county liquor stores, but many liquor stores owners from Howard and surrounding areas testified against the proposal.

Wise, who represented The Kings Contrivance Liquor and Smoke Shop in Columbia and Glenwood Wine & Spirits, cited previous cases in which the hearing board rejected proposals based on public need: one from January 2010, where five stores were already operating within a three-mile radius of the proposed location, and one from June of this year, where seven stores were operating within a 1.5-mile radius of the proposed location.

"If that means there's no need, I would submit to you that the eight within 1.5 miles of this location and the 13 within three miles should mean the same thing," Wise said.

Beach, who represented the Perfect Pour in Elkridge, and Wise also argued that the proposed store goes against the state law that says "a license cannot be issued to or for use in conjunction with or on the premise of" a chain store or grocery store. (The few chain or grocery stores operating with liquor licenses throughout the state were grandfathered in when the law was passed in the 1960s.)

The proposed store is in the same building as the Wegmans, on the second floor. Although the Wegmans grocery operations are conducted on the first floor, the second floor has seating for persons purchasing food from its first-floor market cafe.

The planned location for the liquor store, Santos noted, "is fully enclosed within the Wegmans operation. Upstairs is the (Wegmans) cafe, a conference room, the restrooms.