A 30-year-old state law prohibiting chain stores, discount houses and supermarkets from selling alcohol in Carroll County does not apply to the county's six Pizza Hut restaurants, a Circuit Court judge ruled last week.
The ruling -- which comes nearly three years after the county's liquor board cited the law in denying a liquor license to a Hampstead Pizza Hut -- could pave the way for chain restaurants here to serve liquor.
The suit was brought by the liquor board when the Hampstead Pizza Hut applied for a license and the person applying was an employee of Pizza Hut of Maryland Inc., the Howard County-based owner of more than 30 Pizza Huts in Maryland.
The county had issued liquor licenses to two other Pizza Huts -- in the 140 Village Shopping Center in Westminster and on Liberty Road in Eldersburg -- on the assumption they were franchise operations.
William B. Dulany, the Westminster attorney representing Pizza Hut, could not be reached for comment, but he had argued zTC during a hearing on April 22 that the law does not apply to restaurants.
"A restaurant is not a store," he told Circuit Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. during the hearing. "A store sells merchandise; a restaurant is in business to provide a service."
Burns agreed, saying in his five-page ruling issued Wednesday, "We find the fair meaning of the phrase 'chain stores, supermarkets or discount houses' does not include restaurant establishments such as Pizza Hut."
Dulany had said the future of chain restaurants in the county was riding on the decision. While the chain-store law is a state statute, exceptions to the law have been made for most of the counties in the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas.
When the liquor board brought the suit in 1989, it merely wanted the law interpreted by the Circuit Court, the board's chairman said Thursday.
"What we wanted is a clarification of the law, so that we know how to enforce the law," Earl Brewer said. He did not say whether the liquor board or the county would appeal Burns' ruling, although County Attorney Charles W. "Chuck" Thompson Jr. in the past has referred to the law as "arcane."
The suit brought by the county said that because the law mentions a class B liquor license, it must apply to restaurants. A class B license may be issued only to restaurants.
The suit sought to refuse issuance of a liquor license to the Hampstead outlet and to rescind the other two Pizza Hut liquor licenses.
The law -- and the county's interpretation of it -- was seen as an obstacle to several national restaurant chains that have expressed interest in locating here, said Laurell E. Taylor, the assistant county attorney who represented the liquor board.
She said Chi Chi's and Red Lobster both contacted the county and were interested in the outcome of the case. The Sizzler restaurant in Westminster last year also applied for a liquor license.