Changes to free up Balto. Co. liquor licenses for restaurants

More restaurant owners in Baltimore County could get liquor licenses under a measure passed in Annapolis that's set to take effect within the next few months.

The legislation, sought by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, is meant to gradually open up more licenses over the next five years. Kamenetz pushed for more sweeping changes, but current license holders opposed them.

Kamenetz created a task force last year to examine the county's system of issuing liquor licenses, saying that the current set-up is archaic and that reform would help spur economic development throughout the restaurant sector.

The idea of changing the system split the local business community: Some restaurateurs said current laws block them from serving liquor, while those who already hold licenses worried that changes would cause their investments to lose value.

Jack Milani, of the Baltimore County Licensed Beverage Association, called the final legislation a fair compromise, but said, "Obviously, most of my membership would probably not have wanted any changes."

The county now issues licenses based on the population of each of its 15 election districts. When no licenses are available from the county, a restaurant owner can buy one from a license holder. A license bought from a current holder can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Under the legislation, 25 licenses from the 15th District could be transferred to other areas over the next five years. In the current system, licenses usually can be transferred only within the same election district.

The 15th District, in the eastern part of the county, has about 80 licenses more than what the population rule normally would allow.

The task force recommended phasing out population limits over several years, but the legislation did not do that.

"By the end of the process, [Kamenetz] had been persuaded that a moderate approach would be fair to existing license holders and at the same time would spur economic development," said Don Mohler, the county executive's chief of staff, who added that a task force would examine the issue again in 2016.

Keith Scott, president and CEO of the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce, called the final product "a good, balanced approach" and said he hoped it would free up liquor licenses for growth areas.

Under the legislation, licenses can be transferred only to those districts that have fewer than 25 percent more licenses than the population rule allows. Each of those districts would be able to get two transferred licenses per year.

If five licenses are not transferred from the 15th District annually, the county could issue newly created service bar licenses, which would allow only wine and beer to be served. Those licenses could not be bought and sold in the private market. Neither could new licenses issued because of population growth — a development Kamenetz's chief of staff called "a major reform."

The bill was written to allow the license transfers to start May 1, but Gov. Martin O'Malley is not expected to sign it by then, O'Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said. The governor's office is still reviewing the legislation, among hundreds of other bills, she said.

County economic development spokeswoman Fronda Cohen said the administration hoped the changes would free up liquor licenses for locally owned restaurants. Such eateries help bring people to an area "not only to have a family meal together, but also for shopping [and] for entertainment," she said.

Mike Mohler, administrator of the county liquor board, said businesspeople have already expressed interest. He expects the legislation to make licenses available for restaurants in areas including Hunt Valley, Owings Mills and Catonsville.

The measure would also make other, less controversial changes to the system. Among other things, it would do away with a requirement that license applicants gather 10 signatures from people living within a mile of their businesses. It would also double the number of licenses a person or corporation could hold, to a maximum of 12 in most cases.

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