Key councilman says city shouldn't zone longtime liquor stores out of business

A key City Council leader says Baltimore should find another way to crack down on problem liquor outlets rather than force about 100 of the longtime neighborhood stores out of business through a zoning overhaul, as proposed by the administration.

Council Vice President Edward Reisinger said a blanket policy is unfair to upstanding store owners and the city should instead use other tools to fine and if necessary shut down liquor stores and taverns that break the law.

Reisinger, who is leading the council's review of a proposed new zoning code in Baltimore, said he sees the approach as a middle ground between affected store owners who worry the city's decision will cause them financial ruin and community activists who see the stores as magnets for crime.

"Compromise — that's my focus," Reisinger said. "There is going to be a lot thrown on the table. Everyone is entitled to come up with their opinions, ideas and solutions. We're going to have to look at all of it, digest it, analyze it and come up with what's best."

The council on Tuesday will begin a series of work sessions — which could take up to a year to complete — to evaluate the 350-page proposal to determine how to control Baltimore's future growth by mapping where homes can be built and businesses can operate. The effort is the first complete overhaul of the city's zoning code in more than 40 years.

As part of the plan, the administration of Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake has proposed about a third of the city's liquor stores in residential areas be forced to close or take up another line of business within two years. Several council members, including Sharon Green Middleton, have said they agree with the measure as a means of fighting crime. Several others, including Carl Stokes, say they agree with Reisinger's compromise approach.

Nationally, cities have long used zoning laws and other regulations to control the density of alcohol outlets. Research has linked the businesses to higher rates of murder, rape and poor health for communities.

The city's health commissioner, Dr. Oxiris Barbot, said research has shown a correlation between a high concentration of liquor stores and violence in communities. Recent studies in Washington, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Houston and Los Angeles have demonstrated the presence of such stores are a predictor of crime, she said.

Most of the proposed zoning provisions, such as limiting surface parking lots downtown and allowing artisans to reuse old industrial buildings, haven't drawn much debate. The code, called TransForm Baltimore, was developed by the city's planning department over the last five years and the council held about 10 hearings in 2013 to gather public input.

Pitted against one another in the liquor store debate are influential community activists, such as Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, or BUILD, and powerful lobbyists Lisa Harris Jones and Sean Malone, who represent a network of Korean-American store owners.

The majority of the affected stores are owned by Korean-Americans.

The liquor stores that would be affected have been operating continually since at least the 1970s.

Even so, the businesses in question aren't zoned under the existing code to match the neighborhoods where they are. Rather they were nonconforming use operations under previous incarnations of the zoning code and the permissions under which they are allowed to operate have been passed down from one generation to another.

Some package goods stores in the city are skirting existing law by obtaining tavern licenses to stay open later, but continue to operate primarily as carry outs, Reisinger said.

He said the city could do more to enforce laws against loitering and the sale of alcohol to minors as ways to shut down problem stores.

"A liquor license is a privilege," Reisinger said. "If they are violating that privilege, they shouldn't have a license."

Barbot, the health commissioner, said Baltimore has more than twice the number of alcohol outlets it should based on population. The city would need 30 times as many grocery stores and four times as many parks to have numbers comparable to the proliferation of liquor stores, according to the health department.

Ian Lee, manager of his family's liquor store in Lower Edmondson Village, opposes the administration's plan as "fairly arbitrary." He said his family has worked hard to be a good neighbor by following the law and contributing to the community through food drives and Fire Department donations.

"My parents, as well many of the other store owners, mortgaged their home and took out their life savings to open their businesses," Lee said. "A lot of them are close to retirement age. The city is not compensating them for anything. They just want them out."

Liquor store owners don't want drug dealers loitering outside their businesses any more than the council members do, Lee said. But closing down his family's business won't eliminate crime, he said.

"It's bad for business and it's bad for their customers," he said.

David H. Jernigan, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, said courts have regularly upheld the rights of government to regulate liquor businesses, such as banning drive-thru liquor stores or requiring specific distances between bars and schools, he said.

Commonly, though, Jernigan said, governments have taken the approach described by Reisinger, which is to regulate problem liquor stores with inspections and enforcement of strict operating conditions. That approach must include levying fines and fees to pay for the effort, he said.

"It is really clear from a public health standpoint, this is our opportunity to make Baltimore a safer place," Jernigan said.

BUILD organizer Terrell Williams said some community members are frustrated by council members who are looking to accommodate store owners. The city should limit liquor stores to main thoroughfares, he said.

"This law was written 40 years ago and here we are saying, 'Let's compromise.' We've waited 40 years," Williams said.

Middleton said the southern part of the Park Heights community has more liquor stores in a mile radius than any other place in the state. She said she wants the city to reduce the number of package goods stores not zoned properly, including six or seven in Park Heights.

Middleton said early in her council tenure she spent a night with police on a sting targeting illegal activities inside and outside liquor stores in her district. She called the experience "a rude awakening" that revealed alcohol sales to minors, business owners motivated by profits and people up to no good hanging around the stores.

"This is a main problem at the center of my district," Middleton said. "I have been completely up front: There has never been any compromise with me."

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