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News Opinion Editorial

Healthy zoning

Baltimore City health officials are right to view the over-concentration of liquor stores in poor and predominantly African-American neighborhoods as a threat to public well-being. They point to academic research showing statistically significant increases in violent crime in communities with an overabundance of liquor stores, as well as a host of other ill effects such as domestic violence, lower life expectancy, cardiovascular disease and sexually transmitted infections. But they didn't need to examine the literature to learn that. All they needed to do was ask the police or the people who live in these neighborhoods. They'll tell you. Too many corner liquor stores can drag down a community.

After extensive consultation with city residents, City Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot has proposed using Baltimore's update of its zoning code to eliminate liquor stores that operate in places where the zoning would not ordinarily allow it. When the code was last rewritten, in 1971, these "nonconforming uses" were grandfathered in — about 100 in all — and four decades later, they remain. She is also proposing new rules for businesses that operate with a seven-day tavern license to eliminate those that are package stores in all but name. The city's proposal would by no means solve the problems of violence, ill health and blight, but it is a step in the right direction.

The trouble is this: Those stores and their liquor licenses are owned by people who have invested their lives and their savings in them. Changing the zoning to eliminate them may improve public health, but it would certainly be an immense hardship for these small business owners.

As many as 90 percent of the affected license holders are Korean, and some have threatened litigation on the grounds that the city's proposed action is discriminatory. Such a claim does not hold up. City officials are using rational, uniform criteria to determine which liquor stores should be allowed to continue operating and which won't, and the rule is being applied equally in every neighborhood. The ethnicity of the stores' owners is irrelevant to the public health purpose being served.

Nor is this effort necessarily an indictment of how any individual merchant runs his or her store. There are simply too many of them — more than 1,200 in the city, about twice as many as appropriate given Baltimore's population — and they are disproportionately concentrated in neighborhoods that struggle with blight. These stores should not have been allowed to stay in residential neighborhoods after the last rezoning 42 years ago, and the city will do future generations no favors if it fails to address the problem now.

The city is proposing to give these liquor store owners a two-year window to convert their businesses to new uses, to move to a new location where a liquor store is allowed under the zoning code, or to sell their licenses. Those who demonstrate a hardship could get a two-year extension. Furthermore, the Baltimore Development Corporation's Small Business Resource Center is offering its services to help the liquor store owners convert to a new line of business or to find a new location. The health department's dream is that some of these stores would become groceries selling nutritious food, but just about any alternative — hardware stores, laundromats, etc. — would be an improvement.

What the city is not proposing to do is to compensate the merchants financially in any way. It is not buying the licenses — nor should it. The most city officials are planning is to make them aware of the existing small business loan programs for which they might qualify. It should at least go a step further and give their applications for city revolving loan funds some priority consideration.

Meanwhile, neighborhood activists cheered by this plan should temper their expectations. If the City Council approves the proposal, there is a real risk that many of these businesses will become abandoned storefronts, and plenty of neighborhoods will still have too many liquor stores, albeit ones with proper zoning. The ultimate success of this initiative rests with community members. They must not only support the Heath Department's proposal but also show some loyalty to affected merchants who try new, more beneficial lines of business, and keep the pressure on the city to use existing laws to crack down on liquor stores that have become magnets for crime.

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