Residents convince city to deny transfer of liquor license to York Road

Baltimore City has rejected a controversial liquor license transfer to York Road, the latest salvo in a longstanding effort by area residents to upgrade the aging corridor and end a glut of unwanted bars and package good stores.

In this case, license holders Nimesh Shah and Jigna Patel sought the city liquor board's blessing to transfer a liquor license from Hillen Liquor Store, 5518 Hillen Road, to 4419-B York Road, the site of a Lucky 7 convenience store.

Shah and Patel wanted to subdivide the parcel and sell liquor at the south end of the building, while keeping the convenience store there, said City Councilman Bill Henry, who represents the York Road corridor and has spoken to them about their plans.

Maryland law bans liquor establishments within 300 feet of schools and churches. The site sits 279 feet from Guilford Elementary School, according to city measurements.

Even if it was not too close to the school, "I'd still vote no, because the location seems inappropriate for another licensed liquor (establishment)," said Thomas Ward, chairman of the Board of Liquor License Commissioners.

Henry said the distance issue became moot, because the liquor board ruled against the proposal on merit. He said part of the problem was that Shah and Patel apparently got bad advice that they could subdivide the property "cosmetically" by putting up a wall and assigning the south end a different address, rather than going through the city process of subdividing legally, including installing different water and electrical systems.

Dozens of residents from York Road-area communities, including Guilford, turned out for the meeting, for and against the proposal.

Shah presented letters and petitions supporting the transfer and the applicants' character.

"We'd really stay within the community and we'd make sure the community comes to the store," Shah told the board.

Shah also sought to alleviate community concerns about loitering.

"If the community drives by my store right now, they won't see any loitering in front of my store," he said. "I am very strict about that."

Timothy Chriss, a lawyer for the Guilford Association, said residents were not disputing the applicants' character or promises, but that the subdivision as proposed by Shah and Patel would still violate liquor laws.

"The prohibition is against the building, not the premise in the building," Chriss said. Skirting the spirit of the rules "is not the purpose or intent of the law."

Residents and applicants were seen talking cordially after the hearing at City Hall. Community opposition is "nothing personal," said Karen DeCamp, past president of the York Road Partnership and chair of its  Liquor and Land Use Committee. DeCamp said students walking home from Guilford Elementary often pass by the site.

DeCamp praised the board, saying, "They listened to the legal arguments and they listened to the community."

Henry, the primary speaker on behalf of residents at the hearing, told the board he would continue to meet with Shah and Patel to help them find a location for the transfer "that would better serve the community than this location."

Henry, like Chriss, argued that the York Road proposal was inappropriate and illegal under the law.

"Do we have to say anything more than that?" he asked.

Residents said there are already too many liquor stores on that stretch of York Road.

"We'd welcome a grocery store, a bank, a podiatrist, a doctor, a retail store," said Curt Schwartz, of Richnor Springs. "You can't throw a dead cat without hitting a liquor store in Baltimore."

Community leaders have long been active in recent years in fighting liquor establishments. In 2010, the York Road Partnership, working with the Community Law Center, drafted a legal memorandum of understanding to set minimum community standards for bars and liquor stores and filed the MOU with the liquor board, to be used as a resource by the board when it hears cases involving York Road.

A broader issue — how to improve the commercial corridor between 39th Street and the city-county line — is the subject of a recently begun study by the York Road Collective, a coalition of city agencies, community leaders, area universities and business interests.

A team of consultants will produce an urban design and commercial strategies plan based on a 2013 report that recommends making the crime-prone corridor more pedestrian-friendly, with better public transit, marketing and mixed-use retail and/or housing. It suggests redevelopment where possible, linking Belvedere Square more closely to the road, and creating a Main Street with pronounced crosswalks, plazas, sit-down restaurants, home improvement stores, medical services, community centers and recreation, as well as improved police presence and trash pickup, pocket parks and housing with street-level retail like coffee houses, bookstores and small supermarkets.

The Senator Theatre could be the centerpiece of an outdoor promenade with valet parking, the report says.

Larry Perl contribuited to this story.

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