Idea to limit liquor sales draws fire

February 28, 1994|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Sun Staff Writer

Community opposition seems likely to bury a proposal by Westminster Mayor W. Benjamin Brown to ask downtown package goods stores not to sell off-brand liquor and fortified wines favored by street drinkers.

Although Mr. Brown reported that he had not heard anything from the public, City Council members will attend tonight's meeting with an earful -- nearly all negative.

"This is next to the historic district issue in the number of calls I've had," Councilman Stephen R. Chapin Sr. said last week. He PTC referred to a proposal last year to establish historic district zoning, which generated strong public reaction.

Mr. Chapin said he now opposes the mayor's idea. Councilman Damian L. Halstad said the negative comments he has received have caused him to reconsider his support of it. Councilwoman Rebecca A. Orenstein also expressed reservations.

Council members reported that residents were offended that Mr. Brown targeted Schmitt's Rexall Drugs Inc., 55 E. Main St., in his initial proposal at the Feb. 14 council meeting.

The mayor added the Carriage House, 113 W. Main St., to his list after council members protested that it was unfair to single out one store. But Mr. Brown declined to involve Cranberry Liquors in Cranberry Square Shopping Center, which is also within the city limits.

Mr. Brown said he limited his proposal to the downtown in an effort to stop people from hanging around on Main Street.

The mayor initially mentioned only fortified wines at the Feb. 14 council meeting. The council added miniatures, 50 milliliter bottles.

Liquor store owners and alcoholism counselors say that alcoholics don't buy miniatures because the small bottles sell at a high per-milliliter cost. Wine experts point out that fortified wines -- wines with neutral spirits or brandy added to boost the alcoholic content -- include sipping wines such as port and sherry.

Owners of the two stores expressed skepticism that the ban would work. Pharmacist Forest Howell, co-owner of Schmitt's Rexall, said he would try it. Chuck FitzGerald, owner of the Carriage House, said he would not.

"Those people probably need treatment worse than they need to be pushed into buying a different size bottle," Mr. FitzGerald said.

Council President Kenneth A. Yowan likened the mayor's approach to attacking a pimple with a sledgehammer. "What we're really talking about is maybe 10 people out of [a population of] 15,000," he said.

"We've tried Prohibition and it didn't work. If society is going to accept [legal alcohol sales], you're probably going to have to accept that there are a certain number of people like this in Westminster and Union Bridge and Baltimore and Taneytown," he said.

Peter Samios, Cranberry Liquors owner, said that if some items are removed from shelves, habitual drinkers will buy something else. "It's been tried in other areas and hasn't worked," he said.

Gaithersburg tried it. The City Council enlisted downtown package goods stores in 1990 to ban sales of Thunderbird, Richard's Wild Irish Rose and Night Train, all cheap fortified wines.

"About two months after the ban went into effect, the companies brought out a new kind of wine, at least new to Gaithersburg," said Lamont Lawson, city homeless advocate. The city had specified banned wines at the insistence of the Montgomery County liquor board. But the new wine, Cisco, wasn't on the list and merchants began selling it, he said.

Mr. Lawson said the voluntary sales ban produced "enough positive effects that it wasn't a total bust." He said fewer street drunks now congregate in Old Town, the city's downtown section.

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