The Baltimore liquor board is forcing the businessman buying Velleggia's restaurant in Little Italy to reapply to transfer its liquor license to his name, a bureaucratic process that likely will further delay the sale of the popular trattoria.
But in announcing the decision, liquor board Commissioner Edward Smith Jr. made it clear that the action was not due to complaints by Little Italy residents who accused buyer Terry Lee Coffman Jr. -- who for about a year has leased the property -- of holding a wild dance party there.
Rather, Smith said that Coffman -- a real estate investor who with his father, Terry Lee Coffman Sr., owns about 100 properties in the city -- failed to prove that he had experienced unusual hardship in completing the license transfer.
State law provides some accommodation to liquor licensees who fail to complete license transfers within 180 days, as long as they can show some evidence of financial or personal hardship, including loss of investment dollars or serious illness.
"There was no meritorious reason for a delay," said Smith, in announcing the board's unanimous decision.
Board Chairman Mark S. Fosler recused himself from the hearing because he said he wanted to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest on his part.
Fosler went to Velleggia's twice on the night of Sept. 22 after the liquor board received numerous telephone calls and e-mails from Little Italy residents who said that the Coffmans were holding a raucous dance party at the restaurant, which is at High and Pratt streets.
The chairman said he wanted to make it clear that he is not acting as both inspector and commissioner. "When I go out, I have to be careful about acting as both," Fosler said.
After the hearing, the Coffmans said they would reapply for the liquor license transfer. The younger Coffman agreed to purchase the restaurant and its liquor license from the Velleggia family for $1.8 million last September. He said that the deal has been delayed, but that he and his father intended to exercise an extension clause in the contract that will give them more time to organize their finances.
The father and son said they were upset that their Little Italy neighbors had either misunderstood or purposefully misrepresented the party that was held at their restaurant last Friday. They said that the party was thrown by a friend and business associate, Michael Conner, and that it was not out of control or loud.
"If there was a problem, the liquor board would have shut us down," said Terry Coffman Jr., adding that the board did not cite him for any liquor violations.
When asked why Conner charged up to $40 to attend the party, the Coffmans said they could not explain.
They said the party was not a fundraiser for Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who is the Democratic nominee for governor, as stated in liquor board reports. Rather, they said they discussed hosting future political fundraisers with a liquor inspector who visited the restaurant Friday.
The Coffmans are O'Malley supporters -- Velleggia's is plastered with O'Malley campaign signs -- and said that some of their neighbors might be trying to make their life difficult because of it. There are many signs for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the incumbent, on neighboring restaurants and homes.
"The only people [upset] have Ehrlich signs," the elder Coffman said.