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Support grows for city zoning plan to reduce liquor stores

A proposed zoning rule that would reduce the number of liquor outlets in Baltimore is garnering increased support among community members who believe it will make neighborhoods healthier and safer.

The zoning change, part of the city's first zoning overhaul in 40 years, would force some retailers in residential areas to either alter what they sell or close their doors. That has prompted vocal opposition to the rule from the business owners, who say it's not fair and possibly illegal.

But at a hearing Thursday evening, many city residents — armed with placards, including one reading "Less Liquor, Less Crime" — were unsympathetic. An organized group of community leaders is rising up to counter the store owners' lobbying efforts and threats of legal action.

"Let them sue. Because justice in the long run will prevail," said Julius Colon, president and CEO of community development group Park Heights Renaissance.

His strong stance in support of the legislation was met with mixed reaction from the crowd of several hundred people at the War Memorial building near City Hall. While liquor store owners waved him off, eager for his speaking time to run out, others nodded their heads in agreement.

City planning and health officials, with the blessing of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, want to reduce the density of stores that sell alcohol, using the sweeping overhaul of the zoning code, which was introduced to the City Council in October and has largely been met with a shrug.

"The over-concentration of these outlets has really led to significant adverse health outcomes for these communities," said Baltimore Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot, who worked with the Planning Department to develop the liquor-related zoning rules, before the hearing. "What we also see is there is increased crime in these areas."

The Planning Commission scheduled a series of public hearings on the proposed code, including Thursday's — the only one set aside for particular provisions of the legislation. The City Council begins its own hearing process on the bill in early April. So far, the liquor store issue has generated the largest outcry.

About 1,300 establishments can sell alcohol in Baltimore. About 300 are liquor stores and roughly 500 are classified as taverns, which are supposed to primarily serve beverages for consumption on their premises.

If the bill passes, about 100 liquor stores that don't conform with the zoning of an area — a liquor store in the middle of a residential block, for instance — would be phased out within four years. All of the threatened stores have been operating since at least the early 1970s, according to the planning department.

The code would also redefine what qualifies as a tavern. To qualify, more than 50 percent of a store's average daily alcohol receipts would need to come from sales for on-premises consumption. Plus, more than half of the store's public floor space must be dedicated to areas where customers could consume their beverages.

"Is there something special that goes into their beer that doesn't go into my beer?" wondered Doug Jung, questioning the difference between his family's "non-conforming" store in Bolton Hill and stores that meet the zoning requirements.

The city isn't worried about how conforming stores affect neighborhood health, he said.

But there's not much the city can do, through zoning, to cut back on stores that sell alcohol if they meet the code requirements. And city officials believe they're on solid legal footing instituting a phase out of non-conforming stores.

City Solicitor George A. Nilson told the crowd Thursday that the city took similar actions before when it phased out check-cashing stores, massage salons and tire storage facilities that didn't meet standards.

The phase out of non-conforming stores is "legally defensible" and would be "absolutely upheld by the courts if challenged," Nilson said. Based on city precedent, a two-year phase-out — with an additional two years if a business owner said they were facing "hardship" — is a long enough period of time to meet legal tests, he said.

Owners of the non-conforming stores, however, don't even think the city has the authority to regulate liquor licenses through zoning. The Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association, on behalf of the liquor store owners, submitted a letter to the Planning Commission arguing that only local liquor boards, established by the state government, may regulate liquor licenses.

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler disagrees with that assessment. The city's move would not be pre-empted by state law, Gansler said in a letter to Sen. Joan Carter Conway, of Baltimore, who inquired about the legality of the phase-out.

The owners are challenging that conclusion and asking for second analysis, said Lisa Harris Jones, an attorney for the liquor store owners.

Jung also called the proposed phase-out short-sighted, saying the city needs the taxes it receives from stores like his family's. He had a slew of supporters with him at the hearing who agreed with his thinking.

"It's going to be hard for the seniors," said Flo Foster, president of the tenant association of the large apartment building where Jung's family's liquor store is located. Older people rely on the groceries and ATM in the store, she said.

City officials believe those concerns may be overblown. The city doesn't expect the reduction in liquor stores will reduce alcohol consumption and therefore tax revenue, said Laurie Feinberg, head of the city's comprehensive planning program. Plus, she said, the city is willing to provide assistance to help transform non-conforming liquor stores into other types of businesses, where residents will still be able to do errands.

"It's sort of like a witch hunt," said Karin Tiffany, who attended the hearing with her husband, Bud Tiffany. They own Peter's Inn tavern in Fells Point. Their business won't be affected, but if this is approved, she said, who knows what's next?

The idea that the city could eliminate some business owners' livelihood rubs many the wrong way, even supporters of the proposal.

The Rev. Todd Yeary, a pastor at the Douglas Memorial Community Church in the Madison Park neighborhood of West Baltimore, recognized at the start of his testimony that there are valid arguments on both sides of this debate. But, he said, "there's fairness in the proposal" — giving the owners up to four years to change their business models or move — and the potential for cleaner, safer communities outweighs individual desires.

"The question is, what kind of Baltimore do we want?" Yeary said.

Many community leaders have started to see the zoning overhaul as an opportunity to have a say over what businesses are in their neighborhoods, said Mel Freeman, executive director the Citizens Planning & Housing Association Inc., which supports community associations throughout the city. Over the past few days, he has reached out to these associations, urging them to speak out in favor of the legislation.

Baltimore City Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton, an enthusiastic supporter of the legislation who represents a swath of northwestern neighborhoods, sees the zoning overhaul as another way to chip away at blighting influences.

"You can't just make plans to build new homes. You have to restructure what is going on in the environment," she said. "The community is 100 percent for this."

Not all council members say the same for their districts.

Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, who represents the southwestern part of the city, said he only knows of one non-conforming liquor store in his district, and it hasn't caused problems. He called it an example of why there shouldn't be a blanket phase-out.

"We should use the law enforcement procedures currently in existence" to deal with liquor stores that are neighborhood nuisances, said Councilman Carl Stokes, whose largely East Baltimore district contains many non-conforming stores. Most of the owners of non-conforming businesses didn't realize their stores didn't meet zoning requirements, he said, and they should not be penalized for that.

"Many are well run and many are well-received," Stokes said, and shutting them "if not unconstitutional, is certainly un-American."

There are not many non-conforming stores in Councilman Brandon Scott's district in the far east of the city, he said. But his constituents feel for their neighbors whose only options for groceries are stocked next to alcohol, he said.

So he said he supports the zoning change because he remembers growing up in Park Heights, where liquor stores flourish.

"When they have the Juicy Juice right below the forties, it psychologically affects young people," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Andrea K. Walker contributed to this article.

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