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City liquor board kills second 'zombie' license

The city liquor board has begun enforcing a law about licenses that have been unused for months.
The city liquor board has begun enforcing a law about licenses that have been unused for months. (Colby Ware / BALTIMORE SUN)

For the second time in as many months, Baltimore's new liquor board has ruled that a license that belonged to a long-closed business cannot be used again.

The board voted 3-0 to declare dead the liquor license of a proposed jazz club in West Baltimore that was opposed by several community groups, who said the Harlem Park area has too many liquor establishments already.

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Anthony Ogbuokiri, of UJU Investments Inc., had proposed using a transferred license from Martick's Restaurant Francais, the legendary Mulberry Street restaurant that closed in 2008 after a 38-year run. But board members ruled Ogbuokiri had allowed the license to sit unused for too long, and they declared it invalid.

"This license is extinguished," said Thomas Ward, the liquor board chairman.

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State law says that unused liquor licenses — which the Community Law Center and others have dubbed "zombie licenses" — are void after 180 days, but the liquor board for years had allowed such licenses to remain valid if their owners paid annual fees. Last month, after years of community pressure, the board changed course and voted down the use of such a license for Crossbar, a proposed beer garden in Federal Hill. The board cited the 180-day rule.

Enforcement of that provision could have widespread impact in Baltimore, threatening dozens of liquor licenses. Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, president of the Matthew Henson Neighborhood Association, said he was "ecstatic" at the board's decision,

"If there's one way for us to try to close some of these businesses, it's to have a liquor board that is going to make certain that it applies the law," Cheatham said. "They were in violation of their 180-day opportunity to do something with the property. They were noncompliant."

Cheatham and Arlene Fisher, president of the Lafayette Square Association of Harlem Park, testified against the license before the board.

"There are three liquor stores in the area," Fisher said. "It's a residential area. We're trying to encourage development to come in. This would definitely be a negative."

Ogbuokiri, who did not attend the hearing, could not be reached for comment. Crossbar officials have said they plan to appeal.

Attorney Becky Lundberg Witt of the Community Law Center noted the board did not declare dead eight licenses in similar situations over the past three months.

"It's still hard to say if this is a trend," Witt said.

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