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Wine and music flow from Annapolis session to Howard County

Howard legislative delegation gets most of its wish list in 2013

By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

5:11 PM EDT, April 11, 2013

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Wine growlers are coming to Maryland and the music at Merriweather Post Pavilion can play at the usual volume under Howard County-based legislation adopted in the 2013 General Assembly session.

The Howard legislative delegation got just about everything it asked for in the session, which ended this week, either by having bills passed, folded into statewide legislation or included in the state's capital budget.

The legislature approved bills to allow the county to create a property tax credit to encourage improvement of certain neighborhoods and give library employees the right to form a union.

A measure to allow volunteer fire companies and veterans organizations to hold charity casino events, including roulette and card games, did not pass. A bill to finance restoration of five buildings at the historic Belmont property received half the money the delegation originally requested.

County legislators introduced five bills related to alcohol, a few tailored to specific requests.

Joe Barbera, owner of Aida Wine Bar Bistro in Columbia, asked delegation co-chairman Del. Guy Guzzone to introduce legislation allowing wine to be sold in refillable containers called growlers — supposedly named for the sound the containers make when sliding down the bar. It's already legal in Howard, Baltimore City and a few other jurisdictions to sell beer this way, but the new law will make Howard the first place in Maryland to allow wine to be sold in growlers.

Barbera says jokingly that he prefers to give the name a French flavor by calling it a "growlier." Whatever the lingo, he's making arrangements to be ready to go once the legislation takes effect July 1.

"We're excited that we have the chance to do this," said Barbera, whose restaurant is one of the few spots in the state to offer wine on tap, usually with about 30 reds and whites available. He does sell bottled wine, but said most of the wine he sells is served from the tap.

He said he'll need to get a separate county license, and he's making arrangements to bring in a supply of 550 milliliter "growliers" with his own label. He'll also have a nitrogen/carbon dioxide line run to the bar so the bottles can be filled, topped with a shot of the gases to drive out the oxygen and capped to go.

It's not clear how many other county establishments will offer wine in refillable bottles, but both restaurants and liquor stores will be allowed to do it. The refillable bottle size is limited to between 17 and 34 ounces, or about 503 and 1,006 milliliters.

Barbera said he hasn't worked out what he'll charge for wine sold this way, but said it would be higher than buying a bottle in a liquor store, but lower than the usual restaurant bottle price. The bottle itself will cost between $8 and $12, Barbera said, and would be replaced at each refill at no charge with a fresh bottle sanitized by the restaurant.

Other alcohol-related bills adopted in this session will allow retirement communities to sell drinks at social occasions, and make wine available for sale at farmers' markets. Another law would allow a pub to sell the beer made at a farm brewery.

One specific bill was meant to resolve a problem for a businessperson in Columbia who wants to open a restaurant with a liquor license at a spot 489 feet from Wilde Lake Middle School — 11 feet too close by previous standards. The new law reduces from 500 to 400 feet the distance required between a restaurant with a liquor license and a public school.

Merriweather noise

The question of proximity also played into a bill regarding sound at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Managers of the Columbia amphitheater said the measure would only ensure they can continue to operate in the same way they do now — neither louder nor softer.

Merriweather's management, I.M.P. Productions, asked for a bill to exempt the 19,000-person capacity amphitheater from state noise-control laws that set certain limits on volume within specific distances from the stage and times of day. They asked that the bill declare void the county noise regulations in effect on Oct. 1.

The amphitheater management got it, but also an amendment that would allow the county — after its regulations are wiped off the slate — to impose new restrictions if officials find it necessary to do so. That seemed to reassure both the management and at least one member of a community association board who had opposed the bill.

"That pleased us," said Linda Wengel, vice chairwoman of the Town Center village board, who said she was not speaking officially for the board. She said she hoped the county would use that authority if there are complaints about volume.

"There have always been complaints from residents of Town Center and other villages" in Columbia, Wengel said.

Audrey Schaefer, a spokeswoman for Merriweather, said management is not concerned about the county imposing strict noise standards, as the amphitheater will continue to operate as it has in the past.

"We have no intention of changing that, so we don't anticipate anyone having reason to change things on their end," Schaefer wrote in an email. "That's why we had no issue with the county having that continued authority."

Jean Parker, Merriweather general manager, said the center hasn't been cited for a noise complaint in 20 years. She said management wanted the bill only to ensure that it could continue to operate as it has, even as new developments are built on land closer to the pavilion than other nearby apartments and office buildings.

"The main point is nothing is changing," Parker said. "We're not looking to play louder. On the flip side, we're not looking to play any softer. … So we're happy."

Tax credits, union option

Property owners may be eligible for tax credits for fixing up their buildings, as a measure approved in Annapolis gives the county authority to make these arrangements to improve certain neighborhoods.

Jeremy Baker, a legislative aide for County Executive Ken Ulman, said the administration wanted the bill to promote commercial redevelopment along U.S. 1, but he said details of where and how it will be applied will be worked out by the County Council.

The administration also asked for the bill to allow public library employees to unionize, Baker said. He said Ulman "strongly believes in the right to collective bargaining for public employees."

According to a library spokeswoman, the law would allow most of the public library's 184 employees to organize and bargain for pay and benefits. Of the $18.5 million budget for the six-branch system, about 80 percent goes to salaries and benefits. The county pays nearly 90 percent of the cost of running the system.

Salaries will go up for the county sheriff and for the three judges of the Orphans' Court based on other measures approved during the session.

After the current term of office is over in 2014, the sheriff's pay — frozen since 2010 — will jump from $85,000 this year to $97,000 by 2018.

Also starting in 2014, pay for Orphans' Court judges — not raised since 2002 — will increase from $8,000 to $10,000 for the two judges and from $9,500 to $11,500 for the chief judge.

Bond bills for several construction projects were included in the state capital budget. These included $250,000 for a playground at Blandair Regional Park; $150,000 for a restroom, storage and parking area at Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, both in Columbia; and $200,000 toward the cost of a second transitional home run by the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County.

A project to restore buildings at the historic Belmont property in Elkridge received $125,000, half of the sum requested in the original bill.

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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