Baltimore's non-conforming liquor stores have had plenty of time

Baltimore’s zoning code is, according to city law, “for the purpose of promoting the health, safety, morals, and general welfare of the community.” There is little doubt that the current effort to eliminate liquor stores in residential neighborhoods falls within that power — ample research from Johns Hopkins and elsewhere shows a strong correlation between the presence of such businesses in a neighborhood and both violent crime and poor public health. In their latest attempt to stave off one of the more consequential effects of the Transform Baltimore zoning re-write, owners of some of the affected liquor stores don't even contest the city’s basic right to legislate them out of the alcohol business. They just say it’s happening too fast.

For residents of neighborhoods that have dealt with the ill effects of these stores for generations, that’s laughable. Baltimore’s zoning code has prohibited liquor stores in residential neighborhoods for nearly 50 years, but it “grandfathered” in such businesses that existed at the time, and many of them have remained open ever since as licenses were sold or transferred from one owner to the next. From their perspective, the deadline this month to stop alcohol sales is not coming a moment too soon. But in a complaint filed with the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals, attorneys for some of the affected businesses say the two-year phase-out period is insufficient and hence unconstitutional. What would be an appropriate amount of time? Thirty or 40 years, says attorney Peter A. Prevas.

We disagree. While we do not dispute the hardship faced by the owners of these businesses, the city has been more than accommodating. It has allowed them the opportunity to move or sell their liquor licenses to a location that does conform with the zoning code, and it is allowing them to remain as businesses in a residential zone, so long as that business is not the sale of alcohol.

The store owners contend that the new zoning code doesn’t leave enough places to legally move a liquor store and that their existing locations have no other plausible business use. But these stores are disproportionately in poor neighborhoods that are under-resourced generally. There are any number of other needs these business locations could fulfill that would actually contribute to a neighborhood's heath rather than sap it. Selling fresh produce may not be as easy or profitable as selling liquor, but it would do a great deal of good.

We would also point out that this possibility wasn’t sprung on the non-conforming liquor stores out of nowhere when the new zoning code was enacted two years ago. In fact, the zoning update took years to pass, in no small part because of opposition from liquor store owners. City planning and health officials have been making the case for eliminating non-conforming stores through the zoning update since at least 2011. One might argue that these stores seemed like reasonable investments for most of the decades since they became non-conforming uses, as the city showed no signs of eliminating them. But that hasn’t been true for the last eight years. That may or may not matter in a legal sense, but it does speak to the question of whether the city is being fair to these business owners. The handwriting has been on the wall for a long time now.

We don’t think the protesting liquor store owners have any ill intent, nor is it their fault that Baltimore today has at least twice as many liquor stores as its population would ordinarily warrant. They have made investments in the city, and heaven knows we need more of that. But the research on their aggregate effects could not be more clear. Just last year, Hopkins researchers demonstrated that every 10% increase in access to off-premises liquor stores in Baltimore equated to a 4.2% increase in crime. Earlier research found that, when controlling for demographic, economic and other factors, each additional off-premises liquor outlet in a Baltimore census tract was associated with a 3 percent increase in violent crime. Baltimore has waited far too long to eliminate these non-conforming liquor stores; it can’t afford to wait longer.

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