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Baltimore liquor store owners fighting City Hall over proposed rezoning

Rakesh Patel can't catch a break as owner of The Wine Underground.

Last year, Patel tried to relocate his upscale, but robbery-prone store from residential Hoes Heights to the nearby Green Spring Tower Square Shopping Center in Medfield. But Patel was rebuffed by community leaders, who said there were too many liquor and wine stores in the area already.

Now, Patel is in danger of being squeezed out of business by the city or forced to move to a commercial area. A new Baltimore City 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 has sent letters to stores on the list, informing them of the proposal. Stores include Wine Underground, Roland Park Wines & Liquor, in Rolden, JT's Market & Deli, in Medfield, the Charles Village Schnapp Shop, and New Guilford Liquors, also in the Charles Village area.

A city Planning Department meeting about the proposal is scheduled for July 12, at 6 p.m., in the city's Benton Building, 417 E. Fayette St.

Health and planning officials are targeting stores that they say are in mostly poor neighborhoods and are a public health nuisance because they have been linked to violent crimes.

City Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot said the plan is 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.

A list of 128 stores was released last week but that number has been reduced to 98, because 22 are expected to be become conditional uses and two to become conforming uses as defined by the proposed Transform Baltimore Zoning Code.

"This leaves 98 stores that will either close, move to a location with proper zoning or continue operating at the same location but not sell alcohol," city Health Department spokesman Brian Schleter said.

Fighting mad

Patel has consulted his attorney, Anthony DePastina, for legal advice. DePastina said he and other attorneys representing store owners in similar predicaments are prepared to take the city to court because they think the proposal violates property rights and is unconstitutional.

For Patel, who has owned the store for three of its 13 years, the stakes are high.

"I'll lose everything," he said. "I don't want to go away from my community."

Patel, noting that his store was voted best wine shop in Baltimore by City Paper in 2007, said he supports the city plan conceptually, but that Wine Underground is the wrong example.

"It's not a liquor store in a rundown neighborhood where crime is high. I'm not in that category," he said. "I've been robbed a couple of times, but you can't say just because you got robbed, this is a bad place."

DePastina said the proposal is "throwing the baby out with the bath water."

Patel is not alone in complaining about the city's new plan.

"It was pretty scary to get a letter in the mail (from city officials) saying the city was trying to take our liquor license away," said Jim Amato, owner of Roland Park Wines & Liquor, 4032 Roland Ave. "They make it seem kind of simple — 'Oh, you can just relocate.' They're not giving you many options."

Amato, of Homeland, said he asked City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke for help. He said the store, which he has owned for 11 years, has not received any complaints warranting intervention by city officials.

"I don't think I'm specifically the target of what they're trying to do," said Amato, who also owns Urban Cellars downtown. "Why don't they have the guts to target those stores that are problems?"

Seeing both sides

Clarke said she doesn't necessarily disagree with the premise of the city's plan, but sympathizes with Amato.

"I understand what the Health Department and the Planning Department are trying to do, which is to follow their research (that) neighborhoods that have liquor establishments in their midst tend nationally to have a higher crime rate than other neighborhoods," Clarke said.

She said the Health Department's only criteria for now is that the stores on the list are nonconforming liquor stores in residentially zoned areas.

"That's a fair thing for the first go-around," she said. "They don't make individual judgments" about the popularity of particular stores.

But she said, "I'm going to go to bat for neighborhoods that say (their stores are) a positive, not a negative."

In the case of Roland Park Wines & Liquor, located across the street from a nursery school, Clarke has asked the Rolden Community Association to comment on whether the association wants the store there.

The association has not yet taken up the issue, but will schedule a meeting in the near future, president Julia Pierson said.

The Charles Village Schnapp Shop, 201 E. 30th St., is no stranger to crime, said Jay Chung, manager of the business that his family has owned for 25 years.

But Chung said that's not reason enough for city officials to force the popular shop to move, especially based on one JHU study.

"They're holding it up like it's the holy grail of city crime," he said. "It's absolutely ridiculous."

Also on the list is JT's Market & Deli, 4300 Falls Road.

"There's no crime in this area. Why would they target me?" asked Joyce Trigger, 49, who has owned the store for 21 years and lives around the corner. She said the store was grandfathered in as a nonconforming use under the city's first comprehensive rezoning in 1971.

Trigger said she needs beer and wine sales to survive, or else, "you're asking me to find another line of work."

Benn Ray, president of the Hampden Village Merchants Association, said he often shops at Roland Park Wines & Liquor and Wine Underground. He called the plan "hostile to business interests," and a low priority, given the city's high crime rates and fiscal issues.

Legal issues

For DePastina, who grew up in Hampden, the issues are legal. He said the proposal raises constitutional questions, not only about property rights, but about what happens to business owners who rent their store spaces and may be locked into long-term leases.

City officials say the stores would have a two-year grace period and an extension option once rezoning takes effect.

DePastina also scoffed at the city's notion that owners could sell or transfer their licenses.

"Who's going to buy a license that's going to be phased out in a non-commercial area?" he asked.

DePastina also said the issue of what to do about stores in residential areas came up in 1971 and that the stores were allowed to remain as nonconforming uses.

He advocated the city doing the same now and encouraged store owners and residents who support them to "be the squeaky wheel" and lobby their City Council members to leave the stores alone.

"I don't think the city has thought this through," he said. "It's just an easy fix" for the city's crime problems.

DePastina said other attorneys he spoke with this week told him, "They're ready to take it to court — and fight it all the way to the Supreme Court."

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