Three delegates from Baltimore County's east side are balking at a proposal to allow the transfer of liquor licenses from the Essex-Middle River area to Towson, contending the plan to aid revitalization in the county seat would hobble years of effort to breathe life into the county's waterfront.
Although the original plan to transfer liquor licenses to Towson came from state Sen. James Brochin and County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, this feud was sparked by a compromise proposal County Executive James T. Smith Jr. made last week.
The bill Brochin introduced in the Maryland Senate last month would allow six licenses to be transferred from anywhere in the county. But in an effort to mollify existing license holders, Smith said he would back an amended version allowing the transfer of three licenses from the 15th Election District.
Thanks to grandfather clauses and special exceptions to county liquor laws, that district, which includes Essex, Middle River and parts of Dundalk, is 92 licenses over its limit. But the delegates who represent the area say they need every license they can get to realize the county's plan to create a waterfront destination there.
"We're hopeful that [Smith's] position does not indicate that he does not have a full commitment to east-side redevelopment, because he's been over here every week visiting businesses and community associations saying he has an interest in revitalizing the east side," said Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Republican from the 7th Legislative District, which includes Middle River. "This is counter-productive. He's got to talk the talk and walk the walk."
Smith affirmed his commitment to east side redevelopment yesterday, noting that the county's highest transportation priority is extending Route 43 (White Marsh Boulevard), which will open a large tract of land in Middle River for industrial development. Moving three of the 133 liquor licenses in that area would not significantly hinder revitalization there, he said.
"Route 43, he feels, is a far more significant tool than these three liquor licenses," said Smith's spokeswoman, Elise Armacost. "In Towson, on the other hand, he's hearing from the business community that there's a need, and this might be something that could help."
Del. Richard K. Impallaria, a Middle River Republican who made a name for himself three years ago by opposing then-County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger's condemnation plan, said the economic development on the way will increase demand for licenses, but it won't be enough to prevent license holders from selling out to restaurateurs in Towson.
"You're stealing from the neighborhood that's poorer -- basically, they can outbid us. That's a big problem," said Impallaria. "It's not to pit us against Towson, but our neighborhood desperately needs it, and if these licenses are taken away from us, that's just one more tool that has gone to promote revitalization."
Del. J.B. Jennings, also a Republican representing the 7th District, said he has no problem with Towson getting more liquor licenses, if that's what the community wants. But he said it shouldn't get them at the expense of the east side.
Gardina, a Perry Hall-Towson Democrat, said it sounds like the three delegates "are talking heads of the beverage association."
He was referring to the Baltimore County Licensed Beverage Association, which opposes the bill on the grounds that it would diminish the value of existing licenses without achieving the goal of revitalizing Towson.
"If they're available and on the market, any major business that would need a license in the 15th [District] certainly has the ability to bid for them. [The bill] just opens it up to the Towson area as well," Gardina said. "It's not like there's a shortage of them."
Brochin, a Towson Democrat, said he understands the delegates' concerns. That's why he didn't specify in his bill where the licenses should come from.
"The county executive specifically said he wanted to amend it to say from the 15th. I don't know where he got that from, and I don't know if he called and checked with [the delegates] or not," Brochin said. "I think the fair thing to do is, anywhere in the county where there is a surplus of licenses is where we should get them from."