Liquor licenses for problem bars that should by law be dead, but are allowed by the city Liquor Board to live – so-called zombie licenses – have been on the Community Law Center’s radar for a while.
Now comes another troubling Liquor Board phenomenon community advocates would like to shoot down – the sudden use of a “200-foot rule” in the “protest of renewal” process.
So says Law Center attorney/blogger Rebecca Lundberg Witt in her write-up of the April 24th meetingof the Baltimore Board of Liquor License Commissioners.
During that meeting, liquor licensee attorneys Melvin J. Kodenski, Peter Prevas and Abraham Hurdle, in effect, teamed up to argue for requiring that residents signing a petition live no further than 200 feet from the establishment.
Interim Liquor Board Chairwoman Elizabeth C. Smith and Commissioner Harvey E. Jones sided with the liquor lawyers.
Witt and others say the standard has always been a radius of about two blocks and say the board is creating a disturbing ad hoc “new rule.” It happened twice during a docket full of community protests of liquor establishments’ licenses.
“The Board has never before used the 200-foot rule for protests of renewal,” Witt wrote, speaking for an organization that has been representing communities before the Liquor Board for 25 years.
A Win for “Good Fellas”
The legal arguments might seem tedious or obscure, but the impact for communities that day was pretty clear:
The board dismissed the protests for Tilted Pig, 771 Washington Boulevard, and Good Fellas Lounge, 4919 Belair Road.
In order for the commissioners to consider a protest, the statute says, residents have to have signatures from 10 or more people who live “in the immediate vicinity” of the establishment. They must have a valid petition if they wish the commissioners to agree to make their case that the establishments are a nuisance and should not have a license. But the protestants never got to that stage.
Kodenski, representing Good Fellas, argued that the phrase means “not more than 200 feet” and he called, as an “expert witness,” fellow liquor attorney Peter Prevas. (Asked to cite his expertise, Prevas said he has been appearing before the board since 1985.)
Clifford Silbiger, attorney for the community, objected, arguing that the 200 foot standard “referred to a very different kind of proceeding,” Witt wrote.
(Witt, in her blog post, explains what Silbiger meant, that the 200-foot requirement pertains not to license renewals but to license transfers, a different part of Article 2B of the Maryland Code. You can read more about the legal arguments on Witt’s “Booze News” blog.)
Using this 200-foot standard, Kodenski argued that three people who signed the petition – with addresses 500 feet and 1,000 feet away – lived too far from the establishment and should be considered invalid. Smith and Jones agreed and denied the protest.
Silbiger, the community’s attorney, pointed out that the identical petitioners had all protested the previous year in the same case, and the board had allowed the protest to go forward, Witt noted.
A Win for Tilted Pig
The same thing happened in the Tilted Pig case.
Attorney Abraham Hurdle, using Google Maps, looked up the addresses of the 48 names on the petition.
“Using the same new 200 foot rule that the Board had applied in the Belair Road case, he argued that the petition should be thrown out, because only eight of the signatories’ addresses are within 200 feet,” Witt wrote.
Once again, Smith and Jones sided with the bar and dismissed the petitioners, agreeing with Hurdle that only eight names were valid.
“According to our rules, the immediate vicinity shall be within 200 feet,” Smith said, according to Witt, who goes on to say that “the rules and regulations do not state this.”
Community, Lawmakers up in Arms
But attorneys are not the only ones talking about the 200-foot issue. Community leaders with a long history of going before the liquor board said the practice of applying this 200-foot rule to renewal petitions pulls the rug out from under communities.
Victor Corbin, president of the Fells Prospect Community Association, was so disturbed by what he saw at the April 24th meeting that he rallied fellow community leaders and state and city lawmakers to alert them to the issue.
“In the last six years, I have been before the liquor board three times to protest the renewal of a license,” he wrote. “Not once was such a rule imposed or argued, yet last week, this rule suddenly appears, putting neighborhood associations, who often can’t afford to have attorneys representing them, in a subordinate position.”
Corbin complained that this “new” rule does not, as far as he can tell, conform to the law.
“It has not been placed before the public for comment or before our state legislators for review,” he wrote.
Contacted by Corbin and others, the 46th Legislative District lawmakers drafted a letter of concern to Liquor Board executive secretary Douglas Paige. In it, delegates Luke Clippinger, Peter A. Hammen and Brian K. McHale and Senator Bill Ferguson sided with the Law Center.
The license renewal proceedings “surely should not require residents to live within 200 feet of an establishment to provide a valid signature to protest a licensee’s renewal,” they wrote. “In fact, over the last decade, never has the Board required such a close proximity between a licensed establishment and the residence to deem a petition signature as valid for a yearly renewal protest.”
In closing, they said this:
“We would greatly appreciate if you could provide us with greater insight into the decision to make this rather drastic change in policy without prior notice provided for public comment.”
And as a kind of appendix, the lawmakers pasted into their letter the complete text of Witt’s “Booze News” entries for Good Fellas Lounge and the Tilted Pig.