Three liquor permits defy state law, remain alive

December 26, 1993|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Staff Writer

At least three Baltimore County liquor licenses have been preserved as long as six years at vacant or burned out restaurant sites on York Road despite a state law requiring them to be void after 180 days.

All three of the licenses are assigned to sites where development of large commercial projects is planned, though only one -- the smallest -- is moving through the county's regulatory process toward construction. That one is a restaurant north of Towson State University.

The other two licenses have been preserved for a vacant lot at the corner of York and West roads, south of the Beltway, and for the long-vacant former Shane's restaurant at 1924 York Road in Timonium.

Large multi-use, commercial-retail complexes have been planned by the same group of partners for those sites since the late 1980s.

Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos is a major partner in the West-York Ltd. Partnership, and owns the Shane's site, said Towson attorney Julius W. Lichter, who represents the investors.

A liquor license from a defunct restaurant at 319 York Road was transferred to the West-York site in March 1987, board records show.

The old Pizza Palace, at 39 York Road, north of Towson State University, is the third site.

It was burned by arsonists on Dec. 20, 1986. A 5,400-square-foot restaurant is planned there.

Although the recession has kept the multimillion-dollar projects from fruition, Mr. Lichter said his clients still are "hoping to go forward." He said that having the liquor licenses in place will help "pull off the deal" by attracting investors and tenants.

That theory doesn't sit well with Ronald Sanders, who has spent two years searching unsuccessfully for a license to transfer to his small restaurant, Sanders' Corner, in the 2200 block of Cromwell Bridge Road.

He brought the issue of the unused licenses to light when he sought changes that would allow him to move an east-side license to his family-operated business northeast of Towson, something he can't do now.

"I'm pleading for my survival," he told the county liquor law committee.

The patchwork liquor regulations favor "the big guys" while hurting small operators, Mr. Sanders argued. He said he's angry that licenses have been allowed to exist for years for the vacant sites on York Road, while his business can't buy a license.

Mr. Lichter argued that the liquor board has the discretion to keep the licenses open. But assistant county attorney Barry Butanis said allowing the licenses to live for years beyond the 180-day limit is "way too long."

The license issue is touchy because of the crazy-quilt laws that control the number and location of Baltimore County's liquor licenses.

Those laws are made by the county's state legislators, who are subject to the push and pull of politics.

Liquor license holders usually want to limit competition by making it harder to get licenses, and small bar owners fear that large, well-financed absentee operators and chains will run them out of business.

Large, well-financed national chains push for more licenses, saying they will spur economic growth.

Unless the old York Road licenses can be preserved, it would be difficult for the Angelos group to obtain a new license for the site at York and West roads. This is the result of a clever move by the developers of nearby Towson Commons.

Towson Commons bypassed the three licenses made available to it by the legislators and took all the "deluxe" licenses available for the Towson area. The deluxe category was created for costly restaurants. Towson Commons' move means no more new licenses are available in Towson outside Towson Commons.

However, two more deluxe licenses are available in Timonium's 8th election district, where Shane's stands empty.

The number of county licenses nominally depends on the population of each of the county's 15 election districts. But legislators have added license categories for office buildings, hotels and shopping centers.

More recently, they have added licenses for the Pikesville revitalization area, in addition to those for the Towson Commons development and costly restaurants.

There are also imbalances among districts within the system. For example, the 15th election district, which covers Essex, Middle River and Sparrows Point, has 158 licenses instead of the 42 allowed under the population formula.

Most of these predate the formula system but are stuck where they are because licenses may not be transferred across election district lines.

A panel of lawyers, legislators, licensees and liquor board members is working on recommendations for changes in the laws during the 1994 General Assembly session.

The main issue is whether to allow some licenses from the glutted east side to be shifted to other areas -- especially Towson. That would help businessmen like Mr. Sanders.

Liquor board Chairman William R. Snyder said the existence of unused licenses had escaped his attention until recently. He said the panel is reviewing the cases.

Under Mr. Snyder, who was appointed chairman in March 1991 by County Executive Roger B. Hayden, the board has voided other licenses under the 180-day provision.

Of the York Road licenses, he said the decisions to keep them alive were made before he was appointed, although he has not researched the situation at York and West roads "in depth."

He said the board has asked lawyers for the other two licensees to provide periodic reports on the buildings being constructed. He also questioned whether the Shane's restaurant was really legally vacant, because the building's ownership has not changed hands.

Leo B. Mason, the previous board chairman, said he had no memory of preserving the York Road licenses.

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