After months of public testimony and hearings all over the city, the Baltimore City Planning Department heard its final public testimony on non-conforming liquor stores in residential neighborhoods and decided that they would recommend to the City Council that such liquor stores have two years to change their business model or close–the same recommendation it has made all along.
Non-conforming liquor stores are those in residential districts that were technically not permitted as of 1971, but were grandfathered in and allowed to operate. For more than 40 years, approximately 128 liquor stores have been allowed to continue operating as non-conforming uses in Baltimore residential neighborhoods.
“It was thought that these non-conforming liquor outlets would diminish over time; but that didn’t happen,” said George Nilson, City Solicitor.
Because that did not happen, and non-conforming liquor stores in residential neighborhoods are now deemed by some as a threat to public health, the city is using zoning as a tool to phase them out. (It is the goal of Healthy Baltimore, the Health Department’s public policy agenda, to reduce liquor outlet density by 15 percent by 2015.)
Monday’s hearing included a 20-page spreadsheet agenda of staff responses to residents’ and business owners’ questions about various aspects of the rewrite.
The hearing was, at times, contentious.
Owners of the non-conforming liquor stores said they feel like their livelihood is being taken away from them.
Several gave testimony to that effect, stating that their life savings was in the business and that they were never told that theirs was a non-conforming establishment.
Muhammad Abu Khdeir, owner of House of Spirits, a liquor store at the corner of Fleet St. and Patterson Park Ave. in Canton, testified to the commission.
“Pay me [for] my license. Give it to me and I go,” said Khdeir, who has testified at several ReWrite Baltimore hearings on alcohol outlet density reduction.
A few hearing attendees testified in favor of their local non-conforming liquor store—most notably Kay’s Liquor, located on the 2400 block of Biddle St.—because they see it as a community asset.
The Planning Commission acknowledged that alcohol outlet density reduction is a difficult issue.
“The Commission struggled with this,” said Planning Commission Chairman Wilbur Cunningham.
Commissioner Robert Hopkins, one of the citizen representatives on the Planning Commission, asked: “What is the financial damage [the rezoning] will cause these families?”
Cunningham suggested that the store owners put a dollar value on the loss and email the information to Planning Commissioner Thomas Stosur.
The non-conforming liquor stores will have two years from when the new zoning becomes law to either sell or transfer their licenses or change their business model—and become a grocery store, for instance.
The rewrite also allows for hardship extensions of up to two more years, if the business has been recently purchased or recently invested in.
The re-write also affects taverns. Taverns, by definition, may sell alcohol for off- premise consumption, but their primary business must be for on-site consumption.
The zoning rewrite will require taverns with a BD-7 license (a seven-day liquor licenses) to show that at least 50 percent of their liquor sales are for on-site consumption and that at least 50 percent of their floor space is devoted to on- site consumption.
The Planning Commission is recommending that taverns with BD-7 licenses that are residentially zoned have two years to change their business model or sell or transfer their licenses, while BD-7 taverns in commercially zoned areas (such as Chesapeake Wine Company in the Can Co. in Canton, and Bin 604 on Exeter St. in Harbor East) will have four years to make the necessary changes.
The commissioners went through the entire agenda during the three-hour-plus hearing, listening to testimony and reading comments into the record.
One comment was from a national organization focused on alley houses, which asked how the new zoning would affect alley houses in the city.
“We will look at the building code and then zoning issues and address the comment,” said Laurie Feinberg, division chief at the Planning Department.
One meeting attendee asked for clarification of the new zoning designation, Neighborhood Commercial, and requested that the commission allow more time for public review before voting on March 21 and submitting their draft to the City Council.
While the commission will vote on the draft rewrite on Thursday, and the draft will make its way to the City Council in early April, it is still very much a work in progress.
Said Cunningham: “We’re still looking at some parking issues and other issues and will be making additional recommendations to the City Council early this summer.”
by Danielle Sweeney