The official motion to deny a liquor license for a store on the second floor of the recently opened Columbia Wegmans was based on the determination that the store was "not necessary for the accommodation of the public."
But members of the county Alcoholic Beverage Hearing Board had several other concerns about the store, including a state law banning liquor licenses from being issued "in conjunction with or on the premise of" chain stores, the store's impact on nearby liquor stores and the inexperience of the man who is the public face of the store.
Those concerns prompted the board, in a unanimous decision July 30, to reject a liquor license application from Columbia Wine Partners LLC, which was seeking to sell beer, wine and hard liquor from about 9,800 square feet of leased space on the second floor of the recently opened Wegmans in Columbia.
"It's far, far, far too murky for me," board member Harry Evans said.
The partners in Columbia Wine Partners are two people: Christopher O'Donnell, of Rochester, N.Y., and Michael Smith, of Ellicott City.
O'Donnell, the husband of Wegmans President Colleen Wegman, owns 90 percent of the proposed liquor store through IAD LLC, a company registered in Delaware, of which he is the sole member.
The other 10 percent of store is owned by Smith, an attorney who started doing labor employment law work for Wegmans when the supermarket chain began moving into the Washington area about a decade ago, he previously told the Howard County Times.
Board member Anne Santos made the official motion to deny the application based on lack of public need.
"I'm not hearing the community come out and tell me there's a need for this," she said, noting only one person not directly affiliated with the application testified in support of it.
However, Tom Meachum, O'Donnell's and Smith's attorney, disagreed.
"I think there is a need," he said after the board's decision. "What is unfortunate is there wasn't a way to generate the appearance of more supporters."
Asked about the possibility of an appeal, Meachum said: "It's premature. You have to wait and see what the written decision says."
Once the board issues its written decision, Columbia Wine Partners will have 10 days to file an appeal to the Liquor Board, which is the County Council sitting on matters involving liquor licenses. The Liquor Board would then hold a public hearing, in which only the attorneys from either side can speak, to decide if it should rehear the full case.
'No need' for store
The lack of public need for the proposed liquor store was one of the many points argued by opposition attorneys Thomas C. Beach III and J. Steven Wise. The two attorneys represented three existing county liquor stores, but many liquor stores owners from Howard and surrounding areas testified against the proposal.
Wise, who represented The Kings Contrivance Liquor and Smoke Shop in Columbia and Glenwood Wine & Spirits, cited previous cases in which the hearing board rejected proposals based on public need: one from January 2010, where five stores were already operating within a three-mile radius of the proposed location, and one from June of this year, where seven stores were operating within a 1.5-mile radius of the proposed location.
"If that means there's no need, I would submit to you that the eight within 1.5 miles of this location and the 13 within three miles should mean the same thing," Wise said.
Beach, who represented the Perfect Pour in Elkridge, and Wise also argued that the proposed store goes against the state law that says "a license cannot be issued to or for use in conjunction with or on the premise of" a chain store or grocery store. (The few chain or grocery stores operating with liquor licenses throughout the state were grandfathered in when the law was passed in the 1960s.)
The proposed store is in the same building as the Wegmans, on the second floor. Although the Wegmans grocery operations are conducted on the first floor, the second floor has seating for persons purchasing food from its first-floor market cafe.
The planned location for the liquor store, Santos noted, "is fully enclosed within the Wegmans operation. Upstairs is the (Wegmans) cafe, a conference room, the restrooms.
"I think it's absolutely 'for use in conjunction with,' " Santos said, citing the state law.
Board chairman William Neault agreed: "Whereas they are separated by upstairs and downstairs, they are still in the building. So to me, too much is shared."
Not O'Donnell's first
The board's decision came four hours after the July 30 hearing started. Previous hearings, each also about four hours in length, were held May 1 and June 14.
Most of the July 30 hearing was spent listening to testimony from O'Donnell.
O'Donnell owns two other liquor stores, one in Fayetteville, N.Y. and one in Ocean, N.J. Both are located in shopping centers with Wegmans grocery stores, in which Wegmans owns the land and serves as O'Donnell's landlord.
After learning Howard County law requires a county resident be listed on all liquor licenses granted here, O'Donnell said he "communicated that to the Wegmans folks" and an attorney who had worked with Smith suggested the partnership.
"When we talk about these Wegmans folks, they're also my friends and my colleagues," noted O'Donnell, who had previously revealed it was his father-in-law who mentioned the opportunity for the New York liquor store and someone in the Wegmans real estate department who had approached him about the New Jersey store.
O'Donnell also admits that his business model of offering a large selection of alcohol, featuring craft beers and foreign wines, is based on leveraging the customer traffic from Wegmans stores.
However, O'Donnell noted Wegmans has no interest in his stores and no say in his inventory, prices or any other decisions regarding the operations of his store.
"The only role that Wegmans will have is that of my landlord," he said.
O'Donnell, who said he would not be involved in the day-to-day operations of the store once it's up and running, discussed building a team of employees for the store, including a manager to work under Smith who has experience running a liquor store.
However, board members felt uneasy approving the license without that experience in place and with O'Donnell — whom Evans called "the brains" of the operation" — being in another state.
Smith "presented himself as a pretty uneducated potential owner," Santos said, noting he was unable to answer questions at the first hearing about the planned inventory for the store or O'Donnell's role in its operations.
"His liquor experience, he testified, was an interest in craft beers," Santos said.
Smith was the person who applied for the liquor license, as Maryland law prevents someone who holds a license in another state from obtaining one in Maryland. O'Donnell, who holds the license for his other two stores, was only present for the final hearing, showing up only at the board's request.
"It's my understanding that if you're going to be responsible you have to be on the license," board member James McQuarrie said, noting the license holder is the person the board calls in when there is a violation. "And you can't be because you're licensed in another state."