The Harford County Liquor Control Board granted tentative approval Wednesday for a concept plan to expand Coakley's Pub in Havre de Grace with an outdoor seating area with alcohol service, despite opposition from a local attorney representing neighboring residents concerned about noise and alcohol being served so close.
"You've heard one side of the story," Bel Air attorney John Zink, who represents the owners of the nearby Vancherie apartment building, told board members. "What you have not heard is the story of the homeowners and the business owners who have been dealing with Coakley's. This is a fairly significant project, and it is not ready for any approval at this time."
Margie Coakley, who owns the downtown Havre de Grace establishment at St. John and Franklin Street, attended Wednesday's liquor board meeting, along with her attorney, Eric McLauchlin, of Bel Air, and architect Paul Thompson, of Towson-based Architectural Design Works, to present the concept plan.
Thompson presented the initial plans, which are subject to revision and must be approved by city officials and go through a final approval process by the liquor board.
The concept plan calls for a 4,000 square-foot outdoor service area built on vacant land adjacent to the north end of Coakley's Pub.
The outdoor seating area would be covered and have "bistro tables," Thompson said. It would include a gazebo, a small stage and be surrounded by an existing concrete block wall.
The wall would be reduced to 2 to 3 feet in height and be topped by a 6-foot decorative wrought-iron fence. The space would also have landscaped buffers.
Coakley said she hopes to have the space ready by this fall. It will be integrated into the existing pub and restaurant, and it will "double the size of the kitchen," which will be renovated.
"We certainly hope this will alleviate the patrons standing out on our sidewalk," Coakley said.
Coakley's Pub has been the subject of neighborhood complaints about noise, loitering and rowdy patrons in prior years.
Coakley, the liquor board and the Havre de Grace Police Department entered a memorandum of understanding in the summer of 2015 to curb the reported problems – the board issued a $2,500 fine against Coakley in August for several liquor law violations.
Zink, along with several Havre de Grace business owners, protested during a liquor board hearing in January, when the board was considering an approval for Coakley to expand her business with a packaged goods store in the former Vancherie's Restaurant.
They brought up prior complaints about Coakley's and the board ultimately denied the request to open the store, despite extensive renovations to the former restaurant.
"You have to understand the effect of this project before you give your approval," Zink said Wednesday.
He said board members must consider the impact on surrounding properties, but "if you can't do that, you really have no regulatory authority at all."
McLauchlin objected to Zink's statements, and two board members came to Coakley's defense.
"I don't think you can predict future behaviors based on past performance," Commissioner Walter "Butch" Tilley said.
He noted surrounding residents should be aware "they are living in an urban environment," and they "have a right to move at any time."
Commissioner Tom Fidler said there have not been any issues with Coakley's Pub since the MOU was signed, and the establishment passed a recent visit by liquor inspectors.
"I see this as somewhat of a solution to what got us to the MOU in the first place," he said of the fenced-in outdoor seating area. "Now she has it in a controlled environment."
Fidler made a motion to grant tentative approval to the concept plan, but the final plans must be presented to the board by July 20, along with input from Havre de Grace officials.
The motion was approved unanimously.