Saying he wants to give communities a new way to bring troublesome businesses into line, Baltimore City Councilman Bill Henry introduced legislation Monday to require gas stations to get a license to operate after midnight.
Henry said he proposed the measure after hearing from police that it is difficult to apply existing licensing laws to gas stations because they have a partial exemption.
He also said that some business owners have decided they don’t need to deal with crime and disorder.
“If people aren’t coming into the store and robbing them, the business owners turn a blind eye to it,” he said. “Dealing with that kind of problem is a cost of doing business. If they’re going to open late at night and make money during those hours, this is a cost of doing that.”
Henry’s proposal — which attracted nine of the 14 other council members as co-sponsors — is the latest to pit political leaders in Baltimore against businesses as they seek to fight crime. Convenience stores, liquor stores and now gas stations have been tagged as sources of trouble in recent months by officials from Mayor Catherine Pugh on down.
Lobbyists for the gasoline and service station industry sharply criticized the new proposal as another misguided attempt by the City Council to burden businesses and to blame them for crime politicians can’t control.
“That’s just another excuse for the city to blame someone else for their absolutely disastrous policies and not paying attention,” said Kirk McCauley, a spokesman for the Washington, Maryland, Delaware Service Station and Automotive Repair Association trade group.
McCauley pointed to another measure on the council’s agenda Monday as he made his point.
“People are getting shot every day and they're worried about businesses having a separate lactation room?” he said. “Come on.”
The Baltimore Police Department did not respond to questions about Henry’s proposal or any links between business hours at gas stations and crime. In 2016, officers used a controversial “padlock law” to shut down a West Baltimore gas station they said was complicit in crime after it was the site of homicides, shootings and robberies.
Henry framed the late-night licensing law as a kind of “padlock lite” that can be used to deal with less serious problems, bringing business owners to the table to negotiate with concerned residents.
Under current law, most kinds of businesses need a $460 license to operate between midnight and 5 a.m. If 10 or more property owners, residents or commercial tenants near a business object to a license being issued, the city Finance Department is required to deny the application. If the business appeals, the Finance Department conducts a review. Businesses are required to renew their licenses annually.
Several kinds of businesses are exempt from the rules, including those that sell alcohol, because their hours are governed by state law. The sale of gasoline is also exempt from the rules.
Henry said it’s too difficult for authorities to know whether gas stations are only selling fuel late at night — rather than keeping their attached convenience stores open — so he called for an end to what he sees as a loophole.
Henry acknowledged that some stations might not be able to get the new licenses, but said the change would only hurt those businesses that don’t want to work with their neighbors to create a safe environment.
“It’s a measure of behavior modification,” he said. “If you don’t figure out a way to run your business better, in a way that's a better member of the community, if you can’t do that, then you're going to have your sales suffer.”
McCauley said the costs of complying with the law would create headaches for business owners.
“To add more regulations? No. That’s not going to solve anything,” he said.
Alan Mlinarchik, the president of the Charles North Community Association, was involved in contesting a license for a convenience store at a gas station in his neighborhood. The station was ultimately unable to hold onto its license, but Mlinarchik said the battle — which divided members of the community, as some supported the gas station — revealed to him that the city was doing little to enforce the rules.
“We couldn’t find anyone who actually said they were responsible for enforcing late-night licenses,” he said.
Mlinarchik questioned the need to ban the sale of gasoline without a permit. In his neighborhood, he said, the problem was the gas station’s store attracting people who weren’t there to fill up their tanks.
The operator of that station couldn’t be reached for comment.
At a working lunch Monday for City Council members, Henry said he would be open to an amendment to the legislation that would allow stations to continue to sell gas without the license to customers who pay at the pump.
In recent months, the council has passed several regulations or requirements for businesses designed to benefit the environment and people’s health. The council banned the use of plastic foam cups and containers, barred restaurants from advertising sugary drinks on children’s menus and, at its Monday evening meeting, was expected to pass a law requiring businesses to provide diaper changing facilities for both men’s and women’s bathrooms. Meanwhile, the breastfeeding room bill was expected to advance Monday to a final vote.
Pugh has championed small businesses in many cases, but also questioned the proliferation of small stores in neighborhoods beset by violence. In the spring, she upset business owners when she personally urged one store to close earlier. Like the gas station trade group, some store owners felt they were being scapegoated.
But Pugh hasn’t backed off her position, and researchers at the Johns Hopkins University recently published findings that showed a link between carry-out liquor stores and violent crime.