Liquor license in doubt due to seldom-used law

January 13, 1994|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Staff Writer

The Baltimore county liquor board is preparing to nullify the liquor license of a 69-year-old, debt-ridden package store owner on the basis of a state law it has virtually ignored in other cases that involve wealthy, influential developers.

The board has preserved liquor licenses at three vacant or burned out restaurant sites on York Road for as long as six years, despite a state law requiring them to be voided 180 days after the sites are vacated.

Two of those sites, in Towson and Timonium, are owned by partnerships controlled by Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, who hopes one day to build expensive developments on them.

But when Joseph Powers of Towson came before the board last week with wife Mary, the co-licensee, to ask for a three-month extension of their license to allow them to sell their business and pay debts left over from its forced closing, chairman William R. Snyder told them "the code is very specific."

Mr. Snyder said there "is no way" the board could extend his license until its normal expiration date, May 1, or even until April 1 as Mr. Powers requested.

The board decided that, technically, Mr. Powers' license had expired by Dec. 1. But after a whispered discussion, the members gave Mr. Powers until Feb. 1 to provide documented evidence that he tried to sell the place. He said that, beyond a contract with a real estate agent, he has no documents -- no proposed contracts of sale, for example.

Mr. Snyder also told Mr. Powers that his case " . . . is the most unusual case before this board in my time as chairman." Mr. Snyder was appointed in March 1991.

"I can't understand why they can't give me until April 1," Mr. Powers said after the latest board hearing. "If I could sell the license, I could pay most of these bills off." He told the board that he had tried selling the license himself and then enlisted a real estate broker, but several potential deals fell through.

Call for equality

Sen. F. Vernon Boozer, the elderly couple's attorney until recently, couldn't understand Mr. Snyder's reasoning, either.

"If you're going to give a guy a break, give it to the little guy," Mr. Boozer said. "If you do it [preserve a license] in one case, you should apply it across the board."

Mr. Powers has had a string of misfortunes with his business.

His business was displaced twice and finally killed by events beyond his control. His grown son was permanently disabled when an armed robber shot him in the stomach during 1988 holdup at the store. And the liquor board cost him one opportunity to sell the business in a ruling that was eventually reversed by a judge who said the board had perpetrated a "fraud" on Mr. Powers.

The white-haired man told the board members last week that he owes $35,000 in leftover debts from the business and is being taken to court next month by creditors.

No contradiction seen

But Mr. Snyder, the liquor board chairman, was resolute.

After the hearing Jan. 10, he said he saw no contradiction between its eagerness to void Mr. Powers' license and its disinclination to void licenses for sites owned by Mr. Angelos.

"I think these are three different situations," he said, referring to the different applications of the 180-day rule.

"We've got to look at each situation separately. I don't see any relationship between those three [York Road cases] and this," he said.

He noted that decisions to preserve the liquor licenses at Mr. Angelos' and a third where the former Pizza Palace restaurant burned down in 1986 were made before county executive Roger B. Hayden appointed him to the board.

Many problems

Mr. Powers had a liquor store on York Road in the early 1970s, where Towson Commons now stands, but he was displaced in 1976 when the former Suburban Trust bank bought the building and tore it down.

He then bought the Cedonia Mall Spirit Shop, a package goods store that leased space in the former Cedonia Mall on on the eastern city-county boundary in the 6000 block of Radecke Ave. However, he said the neighborhood began deteriorating in the 1980s, and his son Michael was seriously wounded and permanently disabled by armed robber while tending the store late on Feb. 3, 1988.

By 1992, with his store the target of repeated break-ins, he had to borrow money to keep it open.

Store loses lease

Finally, the entire shopping center was bought by the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, and he lost his lease. The store closed in November 1992.

When he tried to sell the license and business, the liquor board stopped him, claiming that his license was tied to the shopping center and could not be moved. He lost the buyer he had lined up and appealed.

Circuit Judge Alfred L. Brennan Sr. reversed the board on June 1. The judge ruled that, since the liquor board had never told Mr. Powers that his license was restricted to the shopping center, it had perpetrated a "fraud" on him.

After Mr. Powers resumed his search for a buyer, the board decided to apply its 180-day rule. That period expired in late November, and the board brought Mr. Powers back before it.

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