After months as the leading opponent of Howard County's anti-smoking law, Clyde's restaurant in Columbia apparently has backed down, another sign that opposition from restaurateurs has disintegrated into mere grumbling.
Clyde's defiance of the law -- Maryland's strictest and one of the toughest on the East Coast -- prompted county officials to file a 10-count civil lawsuit against the restaurant in late February.
It appeared that this was the first blow in a lengthy legal battle, but instead Clyde's has temporarily banned smoking, begun negotiations to settle the lawsuit and submitted new plans for renovations to comply with the law.
Clyde's officials confirmed all three actions but have declined to comment further.
The moves have delighted county officials and anti-smoking activists.
"I'm pleased, but I'm surprised," said William A. Thies Jr., the county administrator charged with enforcing the law. "I think with the lawsuit, this is what we were hoping would happen. I'm not sure this is what we expected to happen."
Peg Browning, an Ellicott City anti-smoking activist, called the Clyde's actions "great news."
"I think they were the major holdouts," she said. "Once they give in, that will do it. I'm sure the smaller ones will say, 'If they can't do it, neither can we.' "
The law, passed more than three years ago, required that Howard's 300 restaurants ban smoking -- except in sealed-off, separately ventilated bar areas.
Many restaurant owners battled the law, saying it would drive customers to other counties and put restaurants out of business. They also balked at renovations -- some costing more than $100,000 -- to build legal smoking areas.
Their arguments won a grace period from Howard County
Executive Charles I. Ecker and raised the prospect that the law might be overturned by the County Council.
Clyde's, by hiring lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, was at the center of that effort.
But the law stood. When the deadline for full enforcement passed on Jan. 1, the vast majority of Howard restaurants had banned smoking. A dozen or so others kept smoking legal by building the separately ventilated bar areas.
Clyde's did neither. Nearly two months later, Howard County officials sued the restaurant, arguing that it was essentially flouting the law. At the time, they said they expected Clyde's to respond with a lawsuit of its own seeking to overturn the law.
What followed instead, say county officials, was new cooperation.
Clyde's banned smoking and filed updated plans for renovations required by restaurants that want to legally allow smoking in enclosed smoking rooms.
The restaurant had submitted sketches for enclosing its bar in August, but construction did not immediately follow. On March 14, a fresh batch of blueprints arrived at county offices showing precisely how Clyde's plans to add glass panels and doors to its bar area.
Also in March, Clyde's lawyers surprised county officials by opening negotiations for a "consent decree," which would settle the lawsuit.
"We're trying to get it resolved," said Sheila Footer, Clyde's corporate lawyer, "but I can't say anything else."
Manager Tony Moynaugh, who is named in the lawsuit as a co-defendant with the restaurant, confirmed that Clyde's plans to spend between $100,000 and $200,000 to enclose its bar.
He declined to elaborate on the reasons for the restaurant's recent actions.
But others said the fight seems to be over.
"If they settle, I would say the issue is a dead issue," said Floyd Markowitz, owner of the Dodder & Poddle, an Irish pub in Columbia's Long Reach village.
Markowitz, who banned smoking rather than renovate his restaurant, is one of several owners who say the new law has driven away customers, particularly at happy hour -- that time in early evening when friends gather to drink, socialize and often smoke after work.
The change has cost the Dodder & Poddle more than $2,000 a week and threatens the restaurant's future, Markowitz said.
Pat Patterson, owner of PJ's restaurant in Ellicott City, said restaurant owners still don't like the law, but are complying -- in part because of pressure from nonsmoking customers.
"From a Howard County perspective, I think most restaurants are going to go with the law," Patterson said. "That's going to give you more favorable publicity than if you're known for fighting the law.
But William D. Lecos, president of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, which also hired Bereano as its lobbyist, said the fight to overturn the law is not over.
"It's a bad law," Lecos said. "It's an unfair law. Not just for Clyde's but for any number of restaurants there."
Pub Date: 4/03/97