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Liquor law creates obstacles for Howard golf courses

A state law that prevents golf courses in Howard County from serving liquor before 11 a.m. is making it difficult for some of those venues to compete with golf courses in surrounding counties, according to some golf facility managers and one County Council member.

"Multiple courses have come to us with that as a problem" for booking tournaments and special events, said County Council member Mary Kay Sigaty, who also is chairwoman of the county Liquor Board, at a council meeting Monday, Sept. 12. (The council sits as the Liquor Board on matters involving liquor licenses and laws.)

"My inclination is to take this problem forward to the state and ask them to look at specific legislation to extend the hours."

The state law regulating liquor licenses for golf courses in Howard County only allows liquor to be served from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.

To change the state law, the Howard County delegation would have to submit a bill to the Maryland General Assembly.

Del. Guy Guzzone, chairman of the delegation, said he has not received any complaints about the law and would have to learn more about the issue before suggesting the delegation draft a bill to change it.

But there may be another fix. Sigaty, a Columbia Democrat, said one of the golf courses has an exception that allows it to serve alcohol before 11 a.m. She said the county's Office of Law is studying the terms of the exception to see if it could apply to the other golf courses in the county.

Sigaty declined to name the golf course with the exception.

After learning about the issue six weeks ago, Sigaty sent a letter to golf courses reminding them of the law.

"That's when folks had discovered that they had been operating illegally," she said.

Sigaty said she has not received word of any violations, which are issued by police, and all county courses probably are now in compliance with the law.

Unhappy customers

Of the half-dozen golf courses in the county, the law has the most authority over Turf Valley Resort in Ellicott City, because its catering facility and two restaurants are also regulated by the county's golf course license.

"Clients are a little taken aback when we have to tell them we don't have the ability to serve any type of alcohol product before 11 a.m.," Mike Powell, director of food and beverage operations at Turf Valley, said. "I don't want to go as far as saying it's been a problem, but we have certainly run into some obstacles and the ability to manage and increase revenue."

The biggest obstacle is that in booking special events that start before 11 a.m., such as wedding showers or baby showers, Turf Valley cannot generate additional revenue through alcohol, Powell said.

Changing the law could help earn additional alcohol tax revenue for the state, Powell said, especially since the General Assembly earlier this year raised the tax from 6 percent to 9 percent.

Kevin Smith, general manager of the Timbers at Troy in Elkridge, said surrounding counties, including Anne Arundel and Baltimore, are able to serve alcohol before 11 a.m.

"They're able to win more wallet-share businesses, such as golf tournaments and special events," he said.

Many daily customers ask for alcohol before 11 a.m., Smith said, "And, frankly, many times they'll get upset."

But Donna LaRocco, manager of Willow Springs Golf Course in West Friendship, said the law has not been a problem at her facility, which serves only beer at its snack bar.

"We don't have that many events," she said.

The Columbia Association runs two golf courses, Hobbit's Glen and Fairway Hills. Bob Bellamy, CA's sport and fitness division director, said "on a daily basis, the 11 a.m. first call is not a problem."

But when CA rents the golf courses to groups that have outings starting around 8 a.m., he said, they often want to have liquor served before 11 a.m. Bellamy said he's not sure how much business, if any, CA loses because of the law.

"It's not like golfers are out there boozing it up at 8 a.m.," he said. "For a lot of people, it's the whole aura of the event."

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