More than 250 citizens, liquor store and tavern owners turned out for the Jan. 9 public hearing to support, oppose, and learn about the Planning Department’s proposed rezoning of taverns and non-conforming liquor stores.
The proposed rezoning, part of the city’s alcohol outlet reduction strategy, would phase out approximately 128 non-conforming liquor stores in residential neighborhoods. It is the goal of Healthy Baltimore, the Health Department’s public policy agenda, to reduce liquor outlet density by 15 percent by 2015.
“In 1971, when our current zoning code was adopted, liquor stores were no longer permitted in residential districts. For more than 40 years, approximately 128 liquor stores have been allowed to continue operation as non-conforming uses in residential neighborhoods throughout the city,” reads the Planning Department Web site.
The hope was that these non-conforming stores would move or phase out naturally, over time. That didn’t happen.
The hearing, which ran for at least three hours, required an interpreter since a sizable number of the liquor store owners are Korean and speak English as a second language.
Residents representing community associations from all over the city—particularly the west side—testified in support of phasing out the non-conforming liquor stores.
“Maybe some could become grocery stores with delis to address the city’s food deserts,” Mel Freeman, director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, said.
Some citizens who testified in favor of the phasing out asked the commission if communities could have a say in determining which liquor stores were problematic and which were considered assets.
Laurie Feinberg, a division chief in the city’s Planning Department, said, “Zoning does not distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ owners. It establishes allowable uses.”
Several owners of the liquor stores seemed surprised at their non-conforming status.
“I’ve been going to the liquor board for 33 years and no one ever told me I was non-conforming, ” said Muhammad Abu Khdeir, owner of House of Spirits, a liquor store at the corner of Fleet St. and Patterson Park Ave. in Canton.
The city’s Liquor Board did not have a representative at the hearing, and a phone call to the board for this story was not returned.
Feinberg said that owners of non-conforming liquor stores were notified by the Planning Commission of their status six months ago.
“The non-conforming liquor stores received letters sent to the liquor permit address of record in June. They were invited to an informational meeting in July, and many attended. There were no surprises there, ” Feinberg explains.
Tavern owners who hold BD-7 liquor licenses were notified much later.
“They received letters in December of 2012, ” she said.
The change for tavern owners is that the zoning code as re-written will define a tavern as primarily for on-site consumption and specifically that 50 percent or more of alcohol sold must be consumed on site. (See article, “Future uncertain for taverns, too”)
Several liquor store owners, some with an interpreter, testified to the hardship the rezoning could cause for families who have been in business for years.
Lisa Harris Jones—of the firm Harris, Jones, and Malone—represented members of Korean-American Grocers & Licensed Beverage Association of Maryland, and submitted a petition with 3,000 signatures opposing the phasing out of non-conforming liquor stores.
Planning Commission member Robert Hopkins, a citizen’s representative on the commission, said he was concerned that the short “two-year period” was not enough time for the liquor stores to transition.
George Nilson, the City Solicitor, said that these liquor store owners could apply for a hardship extension and possibly be in business for an additional two years.
“It’s a fairly generous phase-out period, “said Nilson, noting that these liquor stores could conceivably be in business until 2016.
Khdeir, who owns House of Spirits, said the rezoning would kill his business.
“By your decision, you put a death sentence on us.”
His suggestion: “Pay us and tell us to move out or let us be.”
The next hearing, covering TranForm Baltimore in general and not solely liquor and tavern zoning, is Jan. 24 at 5 p.m. at the Southeast Anchor Library. The planning department also accepts written testimony at ZoningCode@baltimorecity.gov.
by Danielle Sweeney