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Councilman Huff withdraws bill that sought BYOB licenses

BusinessRestaurant and Catering IndustryDavid MarksKenneth N. OliverTodd Huff

Third District County Councilman Todd Huff said this week he has pulled a County Council bill that would have required establishments that have a bring-your-own-bottle policy for customers to purchase a license from the county.

But he said he's still interested in trying to resolve the issue that brought on the bill — namely hookah lounges that he said do not monitor for underage drinking and stay open past 2 a.m.

"It was not aimed or directed to hurt any local businesses in any way, shape or form," said Huff, who represents Lutherville, Cockeysville and the northern part of the county.

"There is a problem that is out there," he said, "and we're looking to address it."

That problem, Huff said, is the lack of oversight on BYOB establishments —specifically, those that do not monitor for underage drinking and stay open past 2 a.m.

"It's putting a strain on our resources in the Police Department in the middle of the night, after 2 o'clock," Huff said. "(The bill) is one avenue we looked at, and the biggest outcome to this legislation being submitted was it created awareness to the problem."

Chiefly, Huff said two hookah lounges, Habibah Café, in Arbutus, and Towson Nights Hookah Lounge — where patrons smoke flavored tobacco out of water pipes — have drawn the ire of neighboring businesses and residents for the behavior of their patrons.

Under the bill, county inspectors could have inspected businesses to make sure they were complying, and could have suspended licenses.

A representative for Habibah Café declined comment, but Nasser Taha, owner of Towson Nights, said in an interview last week that his establishment does not allow underage drinkers.

He pointed to signs on the wall that indicate ID requirements for those who want to drink alcohol and said he's "very strict" on alcohol.

Even so, he said he doesn't have a lot of people drinking there anyway. He said many people who are of legal drinking age drink at the local bars, and that "90 percent of people come in and smoke hookah because they don't have anywhere else to go."

According to Taha, the lounge begins collecting alcohol at 1:50 a.m., and he personally checks cups and unmarked water bottles for alcohol.

When asked if he would comply with the pending legislation and get a liquor license, Taha said he was unsure but that it wouldn't affect his business much.

"If I want to stop BYOB people from coming in, we'd have people still coming smoking hookah," he said. "It doesn't matter to me."

Even without BYOB, he said, "a restaurant is still a restaurant, and a hookah lounge is still a hookah lounge."

Kiran Pantha, general manager of the nearby Indian restaurant Kathmandu Kitchen, said that about 30 percent of his customers bring their own wine for dinner at the BYOB restaurant, which sits just a few doors down from Towson Nights on Allegheny Avenue.

"If they're not allowed to bring their wine, it would definitely have an effect," he said.

Should the bill have advanced, he said he would have purchased a license to keep Kathmandu Kitchen in compliance.

"I don't mind paying $50 if that's good for the community," he said. "I think the whole thing was to discourage minors getting drunk, so I don't mind spending $50 as far as the law is concerned."

Huff's bill, which had been cosponsored by Council members David Marks (5th District) and Ken Oliver (4th District), had been scheduled to be discussed at a council work session on May 29, but he said he'd pulled it from consideration. The bill had not named a specific fee, but Huff had said previously it would likely be $25 to $50.

According to Huff, the business community was on board with the bill.

"Most of the businesses that we communicated with were very understanding about it, but they're also the same ones that are doing everything the right way," Huff said.

Most of the negative feedback he received since the bill was introduced early this month was from constituents, who said the bill represented too much government involvement and another fee for businesses, which Huff said was "not my intent."

"I kept (the fee) minimal, $25, so it didn't have an economic impact on businesses at all," Huff said.

"At the end of the day, it's a small amount of businesses that we're having problems with, so we'll look to address them directly," he said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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BusinessRestaurant and Catering IndustryDavid MarksKenneth N. OliverTodd Huff
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