Last-minute bill bans 'mega-bars' for waterfront


In the last minutes of the General Assembly, the legislature passed a bill banning the type of large waterfront bars proposed from Little Italy to Canton that are the object of widespread community opposition.

Approved just before midnight Monday, the measure was pushed through by Sen. Perry Sfikas, an East Baltimore Democrat. Mr. Sfikas, community leaders and city officials have opposed the bars at recent City Hall hearings.

The bill prohibits transfer of a liquor license for a new bar with a capacity of more than 150 people. Liquor licenses for larger bars would be allowed in hotels and in restaurants that take in 80 percent of daily receipts on food, Mr. Sfikas said.

If Gov. Parris N. Glendening signs the bill, it would take effect in October. A spokesman said yesterday he did not know what the governor's position would be on the bill.

Mr. Sfikas said the bar proposals have become "nightmarish" for the neighborhoods surrounding the East Baltimore waterfront.

"This is really an effort to take care of my communities," he said.

The ban of "mega bars" came as a last minute amendment to a bill that prohibits city liquor board employees from soliciting political campaign contributions from bar owners.

That bill grew from a recommendation of a task force appointed by state Sen. John A. Pica Jr. after a story in The Sun a year ago on conflicts of interest by board employees.

The passage of the bar legislation surprised community leaders opposing the large bars and a lawyer defending bar owners.

"It sounds like a real step in the right direction because this neighborhood has been under siege from large drinking factories," said Stevens Bunker, president of the Fells Point Community Association.

Mr. Bunker said the ban "is not only a question of public convenience for residents and small business in Fells Point."

"It's a matter of public safety," he said. "Kids from out of town have to drive to get here. What does it tell you?"

City Councilman John Cain, a 1st District Democrat who also opposes the bars, agreed. "It eliminates all frustration on the part of the community [worried] that they're going to be overrun by hordes of people drinking and doing other nasty things in their community," he said.

But Melvin Kodenski, a lawyer who represents several bar owners before Baltimore's liquor and zoning boards, said, "It certainly doesn't seem to be a fair process."

"If you're going to do it at the 11th hour, you should have input from people from the food and beverage industry," Mr. Kodenski said.

"It's patently unfair."

Two of Mr. Kodenski's clients recently were rejected for approval of large, waterfront restaurant-bars in Fells Point and Canton.

Craven's Island, a proposal to build the first outdoor bar at 2039 Aliceanna St., was rejected by the zoning board in February.

Mr. Kodenski appealed the decision to Circuit Court. If the plan is revived, the new law could block the bar.

The bill also could affect plans for a large restaurant bar -- complete with an artificial beach and palm trees -- on an abandoned industrial pier in Canton at 1820 S. Clinton St. Last month, the liquor board rejected that proposal, but Mr. Kodenski said his client may redesign the proposal and resubmit it.

Both projects were opposed by every community group near the bars' locations. A representative of the Police Department also opposed the bars and the planning director and housing commissioner sent strongly-worded letters in opposition.

At previous hearings, Sgt. William Rowland, neighborhood services officer for Southeastern District, said the bars create a "manpower drain" on police who already have to deal with 7,000 bar patrons in the Fells Point area.

The bar bill likely will not affect construction of a tropical style restaurant-bar called Parrot Island at 701 S. Eden St. Parrot Island already has its liquor license and building permits and needs only zoning board approval for live entertainment, planning officials said.

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