Baltimore County officials are moving to reopen a high-stakes dispute over three long-dormant York Road liquor licenses -- including two controlled by Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos.
The county liquor board is to decide soon whether a license preserved for a Towson pizza restaurant that burned down nine years ago still is valid, despite a state law that says licenses are void after 180 days without use.
The board also will rule on the validity of the Angelos-controlled licenses by year's end, if their owners do not submit plans to use them, said board chairman Philip R. Leyhe Jr.
Mr. Angelos long has planned major commercial projects at the vacant sites in Towson and Timonium but has no specific plans yet.
Mr. Leyhe said the board has been "very fair," in preserving the licenses, but resolving questions about lingering licenses at closed liquor outlets is his "No. 1 priority" as chairman under County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III.
Big money is at stake.
Liquor licenses are scarce in Towson and typically sell for $90,000 to $130,000, said Linda Carter, a Prince George's County attorney who specializes in the field.
And having a license already attached to a site planned for development "makes it a lot more valuable," she said. It's easier to attract big tenants, and it's easier to get liquor board approval for a change in license ownership than for a change in location.
The board has interpreted the 180-day law in various ways. In many cases, evidence of a plan to build anew or transfer the license to new owners has been enough to preserve a license. In others, the board has declared unused licenses void.
Ms. Carter represented a national pizza chain that was frustrated in its attempt to locate in Towson last year by the board's narrow interpretation of the 180-day law.
The license that California Pizza Kitchens sought to transfer to a site at York Road and Pennsylvania Avenue was declared invalid, because the board ruled it was six days over the 180-day limit.
That case is awaiting a decision from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.
One of the Angelos licenses was obtained in 1987 for a vacant lot at York and West roads just south of the Beltway, a site proposed for a nine-story hotel-cinema-restaurant complex. Mr. Angelos said last week that although he intends to develop the 5-acre tract, he has "no definite plans."
The other license is for the former Shane's restaurant in the 1900 block of York Road in Timonium, where Mr. Angelos planned another multiuse commercial development.
The dispute over long-dormant licenses is part of a struggle over control of the liquor business between local, politically influential owners of small bars, restaurants and liquor stores and the nationwide chains that have proliferated in recent years.
Small licensees, represented by the county's Licensed Beverage Association, have worked to limit competition through a patchwork of laws.
That keeps a surplus of marginally profitable licenses in the economically depressed southeastern part of county, while making them as scarce as gold nuggets in growing urban centers such as Towson.
The mom and pop operators fear they will be driven out of businesses by large, well-financed national chains. Meanwhile, the chains and county government say that limiting the number and mobility of licenses will crimp economic development.
But beverage association president John K. "Jack" Milani, a Woodlawn-area bar owner, said his group always has worked to accommodate important developments such as the Towson Commons project or to bolster plans for revitalizing old Pikesville. When Mr. Angelos builds at York and West roads, he said, new licenses designed for hotels and commercial offices would be available to him.
The board did not bring the Pizza Palace's old license to a hearing.
Instead, the issue was raised by Anoushirvan Shojae-Chaghorvand and his wife, Constance. They want to buy the license for use in their pizza restaurant -- also called Pizza Palace -- at 101 York Road, next to the vacant lot where the old restaurant once stood.
The site is north of the Towson State University campus.
The license still belongs to Ioannis and George Kosmakos, the original owners, who as late as 1993 planned to rebuild.
Their lawyer, Constantine Prevas, said their project stalled because of bureaucratic roadblocks and environmental problems on the site.