For the second time in the past few weeks, the Harford County Liquor Control Board is poised to take action for the purpose of regulating a business market rather than for the purpose of ensuring public safety.
A few weeks ago, the board voted not to grant a license for a liquor store proposed for Del Plaza at the intersection of Hickory Avenue and Moores Mill Road on the grounds that there are enough liquor stores in Bel Air. This week, the board is expected to consider denying a license for the former Decker's Wine and Spirits site on Baltimore Pike in Bel Air, possibly also on the grounds that there are enough liquor stores in Bel Air.
The notion that the liquor board is somehow qualified to make judgments about the public's demand for beer, wine and distilled spirits in the greater Bel Air area, or anywhere else in Harford County for that matter, is a load of spent corn mash, but more about that shortly.
It is worth noting the case on which the liquor board is poised to act involves legitimate questions about whether a liquor license should be granted. The last owners of Decker's, who purchased the store from the Decker family years ago, closed their operation in the aftermath of a federal criminal case in which the financial backers, a couple from Howard County, pleaded guilty to an extortion count and were ordered to pay fines totaling in excess of $1 million. The high-profile case also implicated a former Prince George's County Executive.
If the board has legitimate questions about whether the proposed liquor operation for the Decker's site can divorce itself from the site's past problems, there is substantial justification to deny a license.
If, however, based on previous decisions like the denial of the Del Plaza store, the board comes to the conclusion that it needs to regulate how many liquor stores can operate in the relatively large Bel Air market, this would be a serious mistake. The board exists not to be an arbiter of business competition, but rather to serve as the community's check on whether license holders are acting responsibly when they sell potentially lethal recreational intoxicants.
As lawyer Joe Snee pointed out in advocating for the latest Decker's license, alcoholic beverages, like prescription drugs, are heavily regulated and for good reason. That regulation does not, however, extend to deciding whether the market can support another seller, be it a freestanding drugstore, like those that have popped up all over Harford and everywhere else like mushrooms after a summer storm, or a liquor store.
For what it's worth, with 14 liquor licensees in the Bel Air area, booze dispensaries are outnumbered by churches, an unscientific but oft cited statistic for measuring a community's social fabric.
Moreover, Bel Air isn't necessarily known for places that sell alcohol at a discount, another unscientific indication that possibly a little more competition in the market might better serve the drinking public.
It remains to be seen whether a liquor license should be granted for the Decker's Wine and Spirits operation, but any questions about qualifications for a license should relate to whether serious past problems have been overcome. The question of whether there are too many stores selling beer, wine and liquor in a particular community can be answered only by the people who buy the product, not the potential competition.