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Sobering Thought

Controversial State Senate Bill Could Breathe New Life into "Dead" Baltimore Liquor Licenses

Christopher Myers
Bar Back: Remington's hard times is one of almost 100 Baltimore watering holes that could revive expired liquor licenses under a new senate bill.

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 4/7/2004

For many in the North Baltimore neighborhood of Remington, the Hard Times Bar on the corner of 28th Street and Huntingdon Avenue was aptly named. Many members of the community had a hard time dealing with the noise and rowdiness--including a pair of shootings--and the bar was viewed as bringing trouble to the neighborhood. When Hard Times closed of its own accord in 2001, many Remingtonians breathed a sigh of relief. However, they turned out to have exhaled too early.

The bar attempted to reopen the following year, kick-starting what Joan Floyd, first vice president of the Remington Neighborhood Alliance, calls a "huge effort" involving petitions, picketing, and even photographing the bar's water meter to point out and prove to the Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners that Hard Times had been closed for more than 360 days, and so, according to state law, its liquor license was expired. The community ultimately prevailed, and Hard Times has been shuttered ever since.

But again, it might be too soon to breathe easy. A bill introduced by state Sen. Lisa Gladden (D-41st) has Floyd and others who've battled problematic bars in their communities fearful they may have to again man the barricades. Senate Bill 832 would alter the process by which liquor licenses become expired and would give the city liquor board the authority to determine if certain expired liquor licenses should become "unexpired." The bill's goal is to revive licenses that expired after the businesses they were attached to closed due to "severe hardship." Fire, city condemnation, and bankruptcy are among some of the hardships spelled out in the legislation.

"This is not about adding bars--Lord knows we don't need any more bars in the city of Baltimore," Gladden says. "It has to do with providing licensees with due process. It is for a very, very limited number of licenses that were lost due to extreme circumstances and through no fault of the licensee."

Opponents of the measure, including the Baltimore City Police Department and the nonprofit Community Law Center, both of which testified against the bill at March public hearings in Annapolis, fear the bill's wording is too vague and gives the Liquor Board too much discretion in reactivating dead licenses. And then there's the fear that "nuisance bars" could be among the undead. The Hard Times appears on a list of some 97 expired licenses the bill could affect; the cause of the bar's closure is given as "illness." (The bar's licensees could not be reached for comment.)

"There's no question that if this bill were to pass, the Hard Times could reopen," Floyd says. "It's the Lazarus clause. The ultimate grandfather clause--you can die and still get to come back to life. It's outrageous."

The furor the bill produced, together with what Gladden deems "misinformation" surrounding it, have the senator acknowledging that the bill as currently drafted is "going to die" this session. But the issues it raises remain.

The Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee "believes we should look at this issue with all the stakeholders over the summer," Gladden says. "I admit the bill is probably inartfully drafted. It will come back with clearer language and clearer statement about its purpose."

It's not uncommon for bills affecting city liquor laws to be mired in conflict, because bars can be problematic in their communities and because liquor licenses are a precious commodity. For more than 35 years now, Baltimore City has had a moratorium on the issuance of new liquor licenses, save for certain niche-category licenses and those connected to restaurants. If you want to open a new bar or package store it's necessary to buy an existing license--and those can be costly, hard to come by, and encumbered with regulations prohibiting their transference from one neighborhood to another. For four years now, there has also been a law designed to winnow down the number of liquor licenses (currently about 1,470 down from 2,200 in 1968) through a process wherein licenses expire if not used--that is to say, the businesses they're attached to are closed or cease selling alcohol--for 180 days (or a total of 360 days if the licensee applies to the Liquor Board for a "hardship extension" within the initial 180-day period).

Gladden says her bill was "constituent driven," and among the constituents who urged her to draft the bill was Baltimore attorney Lisa Harris-Jones, who represents three clients whose businesses closed--and their liquor licenses expired--while the city moved to acquire their properties through condemnation. (Among the clients is the licensee with the former Eldorado Lounge, the strip club displaced by the city's ongoing efforts to reshape the west side of downtown.)

"Just because you own a liquor license and run a business doesn't mean you're a bad person," Harris-Jones says. "There's nothing in the current law to protect people who are victims of things beyond their control who find that a valuable part of their business is gone."

Gladden's bill as currently drafted would have the Liquor Board send a certified letter to holders of expired licenses, giving them 30 days to request a hearing before the board to determine whether an undue hardship caused their license to expire. The board would then determine if the license could become unexpired. Bill supporters estimate that around 30 licensees would likely request such a hearing--but detractors are not so sure.

"It isn't clear how many licenses it will affect," says Susan Hughes, a lawyer with the Community law Center. "Who knows how many problem bars might get a second chance to reopen? This gives the Liquor Board too much authority in determining when liquor licenses expire and it goes against the [license] moratorium currently in place. The law already provides for hardship situations. License holders have to take some responsibility to renew their licenses and maintain their businesses."

Bill opponents are also concerned about lack of public input in the hardship-hearing process that may lead to long-shuttered nuisance bars to reopen. Current regulations require a public hearing whenever a liquor establishment moves to reopen after being closed in excess of 90 days--except when the closure is determined to be caused by hardship. There is also concern over when and how the Liquor Board would determine that a liquor outlet had closed. Currently, the local community often takes an active hand in notifying the board of a bar closure--hence Remington residents' use of water-meter photos to show that the Hard Times was not open.

Harris-Jones acknowledges that there are "things that can be done to the bill" to make the bill more palatable to liquor-fearful communities without "killing the whole concept because of one bad bar." Gladden says she'd like to sit down and have a "very calm and sober discussion" with the Community Law Center and the police department over aspects of the bill and "how to deal with potential problems."

But whenever liquor--and the laws regulating it--is on the table, "sober" discussions are sometimes difficult to pull together.

"This is a strange industry," says Liquor Board executive secretary Nathan Irby. "Trust me--you can do all things right and still be wrong."

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