Public hearing set on liquor store rezoning proposal

A public hearing is scheduled for Jan. 10 on a Baltimore City Health Department proposal that would kick some upscale wine and liquor stores out of residential neighborhoods, including in north Baltimore.

"I'm going to be there on Thursday," said Anthony DePastina, an attorney representing The Wine Underground store in the Hampden area.

The hearing is set for 4:30 p.m., in the War Memorial Building, 101 N. Gay St., in downtown Baltimore.

The Health Department proposal would effectively ban many wine and liquor stores in residential neighborhoods, including at least five in north Baltimore, as part of the city's first comprehensive rezoning efforts in four decades.

The city sent letters to stores on the list last June, informing them of the proposal. Local stores include Wine Underground on Evans Chapel Road, Roland Park Wines & Liquor, JT's Market & Deli, in Medfield, the Charles Village Schnapp Shop and New Guilford Liquors, also in the Charles Village area.

Health and planning officials are targeting stores that offer carryout service, are in mostly poor neighborhoods and are a public health nuisance because they have been linked to violent crimes. They said the plan was based on input from communities and a Johns Hopkins University study that suggests liquor stores are pushing up crime statistics.

But at least four of the five stores in north Baltimore are longtime businesses, whose owners say they are in relatively crime-free communities and get along with their residential neighbors.

Wine Underground owner Rakesh Patel consulted his attorney, DePastina, after receiving the city notice, and said he was afraid that "I'll lose everything," if forced to leave his Evans Chapel location. DePastina said at the time that he and other attorneys representing store owners in similar predicaments were prepared to take the city to court because they thought the proposal violated property rights and was unconstitutional.

Wine Underground was voted best wine shop in Baltimore by City Paper in 2007.

DePastina said he will try to convince city officials to "carve out" exceptions for stores like Wine Underground, which are more upscale than the kinds of stores he thinks the city is targeting that sell liquor in so-called shorties and forties configurations.

"There's been some question whether all liquor stores should be put into the same bath water, so to speak," DePastina said. ""I'm representing a single liquor store that has a very unique character. Most of Wine Underground's income comes from wine. They have a good inventory of liquor, but it's really wine that drives their sales."

But Laurie Feinberg, division chief in the Department of Planning, said, "It's like anything else in zoning. A carryout is a carryout."

DePastina admitted that trying to get exceptions for some stores could be viewed as preferential treatment.

Thursday's hearing is separate from a hearing that was held Saturday, Jan. 5 at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute to discuss the comprehensive rezoning plan in general. A hearing specifically on the liquor store rezoning proposal was added at the request of at least one attorney, who represents several of the nearly 100 stores citywide that would be affected, Feinberg said.

Also planning to attend the city hearing is Jim Amato, owner of Roland Park Wines & Liquor, 4032 Roland Ave.

"I'm interested in what's going on," said Amato, of Homeland, adding that he has asked City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke to intercede on his behalf.

Jay Chung, whose family owns the Charles Village Schnapp Shop, said the store is being represented at the hearing by the organization Korean-American Grocers & Licensed Beverage Association of Maryland, Inc., known as KAGRO.

Chung said he would attend the hearing personally, but feels that the city has already made up its mind on the issue.

"To me, (the hearing) just feels worthless," he said.


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