City eyes late-night licensing

The Baltimore Sun

Convenience stores, fast-food chains and other Baltimore businesses that stay open past midnight would be required to get a license from the city and address concerns raised by nearby residents under a bill introduced yesterday in the City Council.

The legislation - which would not apply to bars and restaurants that sell liquor - would give the city more authority to intervene when residents complain about noise, loitering and crime taking place near late-night businesses, supporters said.

"Late-night operations shouldn't be a right, they should be a privilege," said City Councilman Bill Henry, the lead sponsor of the legislation. "They should be a privilege, and the community should have the opportunity to be part of the process."

Henry's proposal would require businesses that intend to stay open between midnight and 6 a.m. to pay $250 for an annual license. They would also be required to come before the city's zoning board if 10 or more residents filed complaints about the business.

Opponents argue that the proposal unfairly targets businesses that provide goods to residents who need them late. They said late-night businesses do not necessarily attract criminals.

Rob Santoni, who owns Santoni's Supermarket in Highlandtown, argued that people coming out of bars at 2 a.m. present a much greater nuisance than his store, which has been open 24 hours a day for a decade.

"We're the ones bearing the brunt of the industry that is not being regulated to the level that it should be," Santoni said of bars. "They ought to worry about what's really important in this city."

Henry, who represents portions of Northeast Baltimore, said he got the idea for the bill from a lengthy struggle between members of the Woodbourne Heights Community and a 24-hour convenience store attached to an Exxon station on The Alameda.

Nathaniel Thomas, president of the community association, said young people frequently hang out at the station and that the station's management has been unresponsive to community complaints.

"It's a nuisance," Thomas said. "It's been an ongoing thing."

Contacted late yesterday, Exxon officials said they were unable to comment about the station.

The bill would apply to businesses in residential and less dense business districts and would not apply to medical institutions, gas stations selling only fuel and restaurants and bars whose hours are regulated by their liquor licenses.

If 10 or more neighbors protested the application for a license, the Baltimore Municipal Zoning Board of Appeals would conduct a hearing. The board would have broad discretion over whether to grant the license.

If business owners violate the terms of their license, their ability to stay open past midnight could be revoked, and they could face fines of up to $1,000 for repeat offenses.

In 2005, City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke introduced legislation that would have allowed the police commissioner to impose a four-month curfew on businesses located within a block of a school or in an area zoned for residential uses. That proposal never received a hearing.

Henry's legislation was introduced yesterday. A hearing has not yet been scheduled on the bill.

A spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon said the administration is waiting for a report from the law department before deciding whether to support the measure. Similar proposals have raised constitutional questions in the past.

Sterling Clifford, who is also a spokesman for the city police department, said criminal activity taking place in and around late-night businesses can be a legitimate problem for police.

"It's certainly an intriguing concept," he said. "From a Police Department perspective, there's no doubt that restaurants and little shops that are open in the wee hours of the morning are a place for people to congregate but also for criminal activity to happen."

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