Six lawyers who make regular appearances before the Harford County Liquor Control Board say changes are needed in the board's resident licensee rules, paperwork and personal appearance requirements and in the current setback laws regarding licensed alcoholic beverage establishments and schools.
Those were among the suggestions from the lawyers who met with the five liquor board members and their staff in Bel Air Wednesday to discuss how the board can better serve their clients and promote greater local economic development.
"There is a tightness here that's not necessary," Bel Air attorney Albert J.A. Young said of the relationship between the liquor board and those it regulates. "There is an attention to detail to the point of really being difficult to do business."
Also attending were attorneys Brian Young, Joseph Snee and Eric McLauchlin, all of Bel Air, plus David Mister, of Timonium, and Leanne Schrecengost, of Towson.
The informal discussion, which lasted about 90 minutes, was a prelude to the board's annual meeting with Harford County's state delegates and senators to go over possible legislation in the upcoming General Assembly session. That meeting is scheduled for Oct. 29 in Bel Air.
The ideas offered ranged from improving how the staff communicates with applicants to loosening long-standing board rules such asthe $250,000 capital investment threshold for new licensees.
Board members said they want the agency to be more "business friendly" but reminded the lawyers of their duty to ensure businesses are not only serving alcohol in a responsible and legal manner, but are a solid part of the community.
"We want you as the licensee, as the owner of the business, to have some equity in the game," board member Tom Fidler said.
The liquor board has added a full-time staff member, licensing coordinator Meredith Ballistreri, to help with processing applications and communicating with applicants and licensees. Ballistreri started work Monday, Pilar Gracia, the board counsel and acting administrator, said.
"We view ourselves as business friendly as we can be," board member C. John Sullivan Jr. said.
Sullivan asked what the board could do toward "loosening up that tightness so we become more friendly to you and the licensees in this county."
Albert Young suggested loosening the requirement that applicants must complete all forms in person at the board's office in downtown Bel Air, especially when an applicant or his or her attorney must return to the office to fill out any missing information. He said the liquor board staff should be able to make minor corrections, such as writing in missing dates.
Gracia said staffers cannot insert information on applications; however, she said there could a "caveat" that staff could amend forms with written permission from an applicant.
Mister suggested allowing applicants to fill forms out online.
"That would just be a tremendous help," he said.
Brian Young asked about improving communication between staff and applicants.
"It would be helpful if we can go back to clients and tell them, 'These are the things you need to take care of' and not have to do that two or three more times," he said.
Schrecengost added: "I've filed applications, and I've not hear a peep on them for six, seven eight weeks, and that's not kosher."
Board Chairman Michael Thomson said those issues are why Ballistreri was hired as licensing coordinator.
"That's a primary focus right now of this board," he said. "That's why we have a full-time position starting this week for just that issue. It's not fair to the public."
Resident licensee issue
The lawyers challenged the agency's requirement that license holders must be residents of Harford County, and in the case of a business being owned by a partnership, that at least one licensee be an employee who is present at the business on a regular basis.
The board has supported changing the residency requirement in the past, prodded by complaints from licensees and their lawyers that the requirements are unrealistic.
Licensees who have a beer and wine licenses or a beer, wine and liquor license must own at least 10 percent of the business, work as a manager or supervisor and be "physically present on the premises" at least 30 hours a week, according to board rules.
"At the end of the day, what we need is a responsible human being on the premises to make sure people are carded, to make sure there's no overconsumption . . . whether he or she lives [in Harford County] or how many hours they work has nothing to do with that," Snee said.
Board Vice Chairman Vernon Gauss said, however, that police officers and inspectors need a regular point of contact, someone with detailed knowledge of the business, to be on site.
"We want a person who unlocks the doors, opens the doors, knows the alarm codes and has some credibility," he said. "I don't think that's too much to ask for."
Mister noted chain restaurants owned and managed by companies far from Harford County are challenged by the resident licensee requirement, since employee and manager turnover "is significant."
Mister suggested creating different classes of license, depending on the size of the business, to deal with the residency requirement.
"A small local business is not a problem because they're going to be local, and the owner is going to be local," he said.
The lawyers also challenged the requirement for a public hearing before changing license holders, preferring that it be a matter of filling out a form.
Fidler noted the time spent updating documents as resident licensees come and go "drives the staff bonkers."
"The time lost and the waste of energy is second to none," he said.
School setback challenged
Snee said the board should consider waiving the law that establishments selling alcohol in the county must be at least 1,000 feet from a church or school. Establishments in the municipalities of Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace limits must be at least 300 feet from a church or school.
He said a client is trying to set up a "full service restaurant" in a hotel in the county that is 650 feet from an elementary school, which puts the client at a "competitive disadvantage" to hotels which have the amenity.
"I just don't see fifth graders bellying up to the bar under any circumstance," Snee said.
McLauchlin, who is also chairman of the Harford County Economic Development Advisory Board, said development around highway interchanges could suffer because of that requirement as hotels are close to neighborhood schools or churches.
"Having that restaurant in the place where you're staying, that's the model these days," he said.
The lawyers and board members socialized with cookies and soft drinks after the discussion.
Gauss said he thinks all parties are "on the same road."