ANNAPOLIS -- Baltimore County's Senate delegation approved a bill yesterday that would allow the developers of the $70 million Towson Commons retail and entertainment complex to transfer up to three liquor licenses from other parts of the county to the facility now under construction.
The bill would remove a barrier that LaSalle Partners, the Chicago-based developers of Towson Commons, had said could threaten the future of the project now being built along York Road just east of the county courthouse.
"It's impossible to attract restaurants without liquor licenses," said Lynne Watson, a vice president of LaSalle.
"Since our anchors are the movie [theaters] and the restaurants, we need a critical mass of restaurants. And we can't get them without the liquor licenses," he said.
Existing law limits the number of liquor licenses in a legislative district, and LaSalle executives said the district that includes Towson has room for only two more, which they said are expected to go to two of the project's five planned restaurants.
The bill the delegation approved would let the other three restaurants buy licenses from establishments that are in Baltimore County but outside the Towson area.
Opponents of Towson Commons, which will include eight movie theaters, about 40 retail shops, five restaurants, a food court and an office building, had argued that allowing more liquor licenses would raise the chances of mischief caused by disorderly bar patrons.
LaSalle countered that it plans to attract family-oriented restaurants that happen to serve liquor, rather than establishments that emphasize drinking.
"We're not talking about restaurants where people will go to get drunk," said Jonathan Bortz, LaSalle senior vice president. "We're talking about getting a bite to eat after a movie."
Mr. Bortz said LaSalle has agreed to a condition that food must be available in the restaurants whenever liquor is being offered for sale.
The Senate delegation amended the bill, which had already passed the House of Delegates, by voting to move the time when the three restaurants must stop serving liquor to 12:30 a.m. The House had voted to make Towson Commons tenants stop serving alcohol at 1:30 a.m.
Mr. Bortz said LaSalle opposes the change in closing time. The two restaurants that will get the existing liquor licenses will be able to stay open until 1:30 a.m. under the rules governing those licenses, which will give them an advantage over the other three eateries, he said.
The amendments also would put a two-year sunset on the licenses and would limit the licenses to service bars, which serve drinks only to restaurant patrons seated at tables. After two years, a license-holder would be able to petition the county liquor board to renew or change the license.
The differences between the House and Senate bills, should the amended version pass the full Senate, would have to be ironed out in a House-Senate conference committee.
But some of the county's senators expressed concerns that the bill would create yet another type of liquor license.
"It's getting to a point where you're going to need computers" to keep track of all the different liquor licenses, said Sen. Thomas Bromwell, D-8th, who heads the delegation.