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Baltimore liquor store owners urge council members to make adjustments to zoning overhaul

Johns Hopkins UniversityRochelle Spector

Jay Chung's parents bought the family's business, Charles Village Schnapp Shop, a quarter-century ago, pouring their life's savings into the liquor store and banking their retirement on its success.

But a plan to redesign Baltimore's zoning would take the business' value from $500,000 to zero, Chung said Thursday at a City Council hearing on the proposed land use regulations. The recommended zoning code, the first in a generation, would force about 100 neighborhood liquor stores, like the Chungs', out of business.

"I understand the complaints, but they're throwing all the stores into one basket and sentencing us all with one fell swoop," Chung said.

Phasing out the liquor stores located in residential areas, those considered "nonconforming" under the zoning code, is seen by some as an opportunity to create a healthier and safer city. The audience of about 150 people — staked out on the two sides of the debate — attempted to sway council members, who must decide whether to force a third of the city's liquor stores out of business.

"This has everything to do with the inequities allowed to continue because of outdated zoning codes," said Dr. Oxiris Barbot, the city's commissioner of health.

She cited a recent study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University using 2006-2010 data that found the stores were linked to higher rates of violent crime. Of two communities otherwise exactly the same, the study showed the one with a liquor store has a higher rate of violent crime, Barbot said.

Under a proposed overhaul of city zoning, the nonconforming stores — roughly a third of all liquor stores operating in Baltimore — would lose their licenses about two years after the law was passed. About 90 percent of the affected liquor stores in Baltimore are owned by Korean-Americans, according to city officials.

When the current zoning code went into effect more than 40 years ago, the liquor stores were allowed to stay.

The outlets would have two years to convert into another business, such as a dry cleaner or grocery store, or relocate.

Several of the council members questioned whether stripping the liquor stores of their licenses was ethically sound, or if the city had legal standing to do so.

"I feel so un-American taking something away," said Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, who represents Northwest Baltimore.

Councilman Jim Kraft — who represents Southeast Baltimore — questioned whether the city's code enforcers had the resources to address compliance under a new zoning code.

The comprehensive zoning plan, called TransForm Baltimore, is being updated for the first time since 1971. It recommends building high-density housing along mass transit lines, converting old industrial buildings into lofts and workshops for cabinetmakers and artisans, and insulating the port from residential development.

In all, the plan, which has been developed since 2008, speaks to the future use of every one of Baltimore's quarter-million properties.

Thursday night's hearing was one in a series being held by the City Council on the proposed changes. Hearings on commercial districts, planned unit developments, rowhouses and other topics are planned over the next two months in various locations.

The council isn't likely to take final action on the new zoning code until after the new year.

Julius Colon, president of community group Park Heights Renaissance, called on the council to make the city better for future generations, and he believes reducing the number of liquor stores is a good start.

"At the end of the day, they've got to find a new business," Colon said. "The problems do exist and we can't ignore it."

The proposed zoning code also requires that more than 50 percent of the liquor that taverns sell be consumed on-site, as opposed to being sold as takeout.

Chung, the Charles Village business owner, said eliminating the liquor stores won't eliminate the crime. Liquor store owners like himself don't welcome the crime, and are often victims of it, he said.

If the liquor stores shut down, the drug dealers and criminals will find a new center of commerce without other city solutions.

"The city wants to judge us and sentence us without a trial," Chung said.

ywenger@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Johns Hopkins UniversityRochelle Spector
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