Over objections, Baltimore City Council OKs historic rewrite of zoning code

Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at The Baltimore Sun.

The Baltimore City Council gave preliminary approval Monday to the first overhaul of zoning rules in more than 40 years, affecting everything from fraternities to urban farms — but not before a bitter dispute erupted over liquor stores.

Councilman Nick J. Mosby clashed with colleagues over whether they were doing enough to crack down on problem liquor stores.


The zoning code rewrite would put dozens of liquor stores in residential neighborhoods out of business, but Mosby added a 60-page amendment to the legislation last week that Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young argued went too far against bars.

Council members voted 11-3 Monday night to strip Mosby's amendment from the bill, saying that it was flawed and would hurt small businesses.


"I stand before you today utterly disappointed," Mosby told his colleagues. "You're on the wrong side of this issue."

He described the votes against his amendment as "cocky" and "arrogant."

"I'm not sure what we learned from ... April and May of 2015," when, in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray, protests and rioting gripped Baltimore. "We come into this chamber ... and do the same failed policies over and over and over again."

Mosby's amendment would have targeted a liquor board he believes is too weak on nuisance bars. The amendment would have created a Public Nuisance Prevention Board that included community members, limited the sale of individual beers, and blocked some new liquor-serving establishments from opening within 300 feet of existing establishments.

But the broad nature of the changes Mosby proposed — and their late addition to the overhaul — sparked concern among area businesses.

Aldo's restaurant co-owner Sergio Vitale circulated an email saying Mosby's amendment could end up hurting bars and restaurants.

Vitale warned the amendment would "create a duplicative liquor board" that would cost liquor license-holders more money. And he said it was "slipped in" without ample business or community input.

"This amendment means they could revoke liquor licenses much more easily, and without sufficient due process," Vitale wrote. "Proponents say this amendment is about eliminating nuisance bars, but it is written so vaguely, this impacts each of us. Under this broadly written legislation, a frustrated neighbor or even a competitor could ostensibly cause you to lose your liquor license without recourse."


Young called Mosby's amendment "dangerous" and "anti-business." He said some businesses, such as the TGIF Friday's at Mondawmin Mall, could be forced to shut down under the amendment — a claim Mosby denied.

"It would cause legal challenges because it conflicts with state law," Young said. "We have some nice bars that people like that it could affect. If you have a problem with a bar, that's what the liquor board is for."

City Councilman Robert W. Curran was one of the 11 votes against Mosby's amendment.

"It has been 45 years since we had a rezoning," Curran said. "I'm not going to allow four years of work to go down the drain because of one amendment."

Council members say the overhaul of the zoning code, dubbed TransForm Baltimore, has been written to usher in an era of faster, simpler development. It includes changes intended to promote the reuse of the city's old buildings and encourage walkable neighborhoods of homes and businesses suited to 21st-century tastes.

The changes in the bill would make it easier to create the type of development city officials want, such as urban farms, bioparks and projects built near transit stops. It also would add regulations for uses city officials want to deter.


Under the changes, new sororities and fraternities, bail bondsmen and check-cashing businesses would have to gain City Council approval before they can open. The rewrite would force dozens of liquor stores operating in residential areas to close down.

Laurie R. Feinberg, Baltimore's assistant director of planning, worked on the legislation for years. She said planning officials tried to set up a system that was predictable and apolitical — so businesses and residents could easily understand the code and know what to expect.

She lamented some of the changes that council members made, but thinks the bill would be an improvement over current zoning in Baltimore.

"We are thrilled that the council is finally moving forward after many years," Feinberg said. "Obviously, we like the way we did it better, but overall it's a positive step forward."

Baltimore's current zoning bill was approved in 1971. The city's planning department began to work on a rewrite of the law eight years ago, and the City Council has worked on it for more than four. Council members have considered more than 800 amendments and signed off on more than 290.

"This has been a long, long, long journey," City Council Vice President Edward Reisinger said Monday evening.


Disputes flared up around Baltimore over the rezoning, and the council held more than 40 meetings to address the concerns.

In Fells Point, neighborhood groups banded together to try to limit building heights, but that measure failed.

In nearby Highlandtown, representatives of industrial firms took issue with an amendment proposed by Councilman James B. Kraft to allow the construction of new homes — they feared a clash between residents and business.

Kraft's amendment stood.

In Roland Park, the Baltimore Country Club tried to prevent a map change supported by neighbors that would have limited the number of homes that could be built on the club's land. But the council ultimately sided with Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton, who supported the neighborhood proposal against the club.

Mosby's amendment sparked the latest debate. Mosby said the city's liquor board hasn't been tough enough on problem bars, and a new body is needed that includes community members.


"We have communities with major concerns about very problematic liquor stores in their neighborhoods," Mosby said. "There's a block in Park Heights with five liquor stores. It's unacceptable. The point of the bill is provide the community with more voice."

Mosby said the provisions of his amendment wouldn't take effect for a year — so that would allow council members to work out any problems with the changes.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke and Councilman Bill Henry joined Mosby in supporting the change.

Clarke argued the bill gives communities more "leverage" against problem bars.

But the chairman of the liquor board, former Judge Albert J. Matricianni Jr., wrote that the change would create an "unconstitutional shadow liquor board."

Deputy Mayor Andrew Smullian said the amendment was worded too broadly and would have required every seller of alcohol in Baltimore to apply for additional zoning approvals.


Breaking News Alerts

As it happens

Be informed of breaking news as it happens and notified about other don't-miss content with our free news alerts.

"They would lose their zoning and have to go get" additional zoning approval, Smullian said. "This has been a matter of days, and nobody knows about it."

City Councilman Brandon Scott, who voted against Mosby's amendment, said he would support the measure if it comes back later as a stand-alone bill.

Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, said the fight over liquor issues is just one aspect of a sweeping bill that is the product of years of work.

"When you overhaul the zoning code, that's something that's going to affect people's lives for a generation," Davis said. "The zoning code is going to be leaner and more comprehensive. It's going to spur development."

A final vote is scheduled for next month. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is expected to sign the legislation.