Baltimore City has undergone major changes in population and land use since 1971, when our then local government, acting in accord with the will of the citizenry, implemented a zoning code that disallowed new liquor stores in residentially zoned communities, but allowed the existing stores to stay. The thinking was that stores already located in those communities would eventually phase out. This rationale, while optimistic, was illogical. Why would a liquor store, located in a community where no new stores could locate, abdicate its standing as the only liquor store in the neighborhood?
After the Baltimore City Health Department published its neighborhood health profiles in 2011, there were meetings in each council district, and addressing the oversaturation of liquor stores was listed as a top priority of residents. Five years later, a new zoning code, Transform Baltimore, was signed into law — the culmination of hard work on the part of elected officials, city employees, academicians, researchers and dedicated community members. Some might say it was 45 years too late. It thoughtfully accomplished what the previous code failed to do: put a limit on the time frame these retailers had to conform to the laws of the land and relocate their business to a site where their use conformed to the zoning code or change their business model at their current location.
The rewrite included a two-year amortization period, during which time liquor store owners had the chance to work with the City Council, the Planning Commission and the Board of Municipal Zoning Appeals to conform or change their business model. Through public announcement and extensive public discourse, it was known that enforcement of the new zoning code would begin on June 5 of this year. Yet that date came and went, and there is still opposition from some to the will of the citizens and the law of the land.
The notion that there is no place for these stores to go, as some owners claim, is simply not true. We recently published a report that examines this very issue: 65% of all liquor stores are non-conforming, and 34% overall are on residentially zoned land. Still, the land mass available for relocation is viable and plentiful (only 27% fewer parcels are eligible for occupancy by liquor stores), even after consideration of multiple facets of state and local legislation that rightfully restrict where liquor stores can locate. This includes the State Annotated code Article 2B, which restricts liquor stores in Baltimore City from locating within 300 feet of a church or a school. (Note: The distance for location near a church or school is 750 feet in Montgomery County.)
Our previous research, coupled with the documented ineffectiveness of the Board of Liquor License Commissioners for Baltimore City, demonstrated that these laws, while rooted in public health and good common sense (would you want your kid to go to school next door to a liquor store?), have simply not been enforced. In public health we call this “gums without teeth.” This describes the phenomenon when laws are enacted in the absence of enforcement. We are deeply saddened by the current lack of enforcement of Transform Baltimore and the predictable impact this lack of enforcement of the new zoning code will have on Baltimore City residents. The research that we have conducted, demonstrating the association between the presence and density of alcohol outlets and violent crime as well as safety of children going to and from school and life expectancy, has made an irrefutable case that oversaturation of liquor stores is bad for the health of Baltimore’s most vulnerable residents. Liquor stores are overconcentrated in predominantly poor and African-American communities already plagued by violence, low residential occupancy and residential instability. Liquor stores dramatically influence the landscape of neighborhoods and become deterrents for other prosocial businesses, like day care centers, to co-locate in these neighborhoods.
We are not anti-business, nor are we anti-liquor stores. We are pro-public health and insistent that the will of the people and the laws of the land be honored. It has been 45-plus-2 years, and it’s time to put some teeth in the laws that the citizens of Baltimore, our local government and elected officials enacted on our behalf. Without enforcement of Transform Baltimore, we have failed our citizens and undermined democracy.
Drs. Debra M. Furr-Holden (email@example.com) and Adam J. Milam (firstname.lastname@example.org) have published numerous articles examining the association between alcohol outlets, crime and drug use and co-authored a 2018 report on “Using Zoning as a Public Health Tool to Reduce Oversaturation of Alcohol Outlets,” along with Dr. Richard C. Sadler (email@example.com).