Tony Petronelli

Tony Petronelli, co-owner of Vito's Cafe says he can't afford a liquor license under the current system. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / October 19, 2011)

The menu at Vito's Cafe in Cockeysville boasts Italian standards like veal Parmesan and house specialties including stuffed quail — but if customers want to pair any of that with a glass of Chianti, they have to bring their own.

Vito's doesn't have a license to pour.

Co-owner Tony Petronelli has wanted one for years, but none has been available. The county limits the number in his area, and other license holders sell them at a premium. When his phone rang a few months ago, someone wanted more than $300,000 for a license.

"That's a lot of money before you get your return," said Petronelli, who came to Baltimore in 1974 from the southeastern Italian city of Bari and owns the restaurant with his brother, Vito.

Petronelli is among Baltimore County restaurant owners who say the county's strict liquor regulations have driven license prices so high they can't afford to buy one from an existing holder. The county is considering ways to make it easier for restaurants to get liquor licenses as a way of spurring economic development, but some license holders are worried that such changes would cause their investments to lose value.

For decades, the county has issued liquor licenses based on the population of each of its 15 election districts — it can issue one for every 2,500 people. Ten other counties in Maryland also tie the number of licenses issued to population.

Holders pay the county $1,500 a year for a license. When no licenses are available from the county, a restaurant owner must buy one from an existing license holder, who can set the price, which often depends on demand. In most cases, the licenses can't be transferred between districts, but lawmakers have made exceptions.

The system has meant entrepreneurs in growth areas can't find affordable licenses. Only one district, home to the Liberty Road corridor, has any licenses available from the county. And in one district in the eastern part of the county, there are about 80 more licenses than the population law would normally allow, because license holders were grandfathered in as population shrank.

Twenty miles south of Vito's, Ships Cafe owner Jim Andrews in Catonsville paid $150,000 in 2002 to buy a license for his restaurant and crab house. To him, changing the system seems unfair to people who have paid such a high price for their licenses.

"They should go through the same process that we had to go through," said Andrews, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Sharon. The more licenses that are available, the more it will hurt existing businesses, he said, because there are only so many customers.

"You can take a 16-inch pizza pie," he said. "You keep dividing that pizza up, the pieces get smaller and smaller and smaller."

Others argue that the county should be concerned with economic development, not with protecting the interests of people who can already serve alcohol.

The current system uses government restrictions to stifle competition and preserve profits for license holders, said Keith Scott, president and CEO of the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce and a member of the task force formed by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz to study the issue.

"You have a small group of people trying to control the economic development for a county of 800,000-plus people," he said.

At the task force's most recent meeting, members discussed several ways to gradually change the system, including a proposal to systematically phase out population requirements and allow for more licenses. The group's discussions are focused on restaurants, rather than bars and liquor stores.

The group also examined how to transfer licenses from the eastern part of the county to other parts and the possibility of creating a few more limited service bar licenses per year. Another proposal was eliminating population rules by 2031 to make licenses countywide instead of specific to an election district.

The task force has been meeting regularly since August and plans to submit recommendations to Kamenetz by Nov. 15. Any changes would have to be approved by state lawmakers.

Many license holders are "very apprehensive" about any change, said Jack Milani, legislative co-chairman for the Baltimore County Licensed Beverage Association and a member of the task force.

"If it looks like [the county is] going to push hard, then we're going to push hard to make it gradual," Milani said. "You can't undo 50-some years of rules quickly."