Liquor license ruling sets back plans for pizza outlet at Mano Swartz site

May 24, 1994|By Patrick Gilbert | Patrick Gilbert,Sun Staff Writer

The Baltimore County liquor board has dealt a setback to plans by California Pizza Kitchens Inc. to open a gourmet pizza restaurant at the old Mano Swartz furrier site in the heart of Towson by ruling that a liquor license it wanted to transfer was void.

The board rejected an opinion from the county Office of Law, which held that the license of the former Szechuan Empire Restaurant at 707 York Road was in fact valid when California Pizza Kitchens applied to transfer the license to its new location at 424 York Road.

The county's Beverage License Association, whose members don't want more competition in the Towson market, opposed the transfer. The trade group has criticized the liquor board in the past for holding licenses open long past their expiration dates for well-connected developers.

The decision turned on a regulation that invalidates a liquor license 180 days after the license holder has vacated the premises.

In a written opinion, board members Phillip R. Leyhe Jr. and Frank J. Weslowski ruled that the Szechuan Empire's operators vacated the business when they closed for good on April 30, 1993. Thus, the license would have been unused for 186 days on Nov. 3, 1993, when California Pizza applied for the transfer.

The county law office noted that the Maryland liquor laws are vague on the definition of "vacating," but argued that the Szechuan Empire's operators actually vacated the premises on May 10, 1993, when they turned over the keys to the landlord. That would have made the license valid when California Pizza applied for the transfer.

If the board's decision stands, California Pizza Kitchens will have to look for another license to transfer.

Linda Carter, an attorney representing both the Szechuan Empire licensees and California Pizza, said she will appeal to the Circuit Court.

"The board ignored the professional legal advice of their own counsel and issued a decision that was not based on law," she said.

Liquor board Chairman Charles E. Norton did not vote on the case because he was not on the board when it heard testimony in February. He replaced William R. Snyder, who was forced to resign by County Executive Roger B. Hayden 10 days after the last hearing on the case, largely as the result of pressure from the Beverage License Association.

That group was angry with Mr. Snyder for allegedly treating large corporations differently from owners of corner taverns or restaurants.

Mr. Leyhe said neither the Snyder issue nor pressure from the license holders' lobbying group played any part in the board's decision.

"We based our decision on the facts as the licensees themselves presented them to us," he said.

David F. Mister, the association's attorney, said the Szechuan Empire license was not valid and that central Towson already has the heaviest concentration of liquor licenses in the county.

"We don't think California Pizza Kitchen can meet the test of proving there is a public need for another liquor license in Towson," Mr. Mister said.

Larry Flax, co-founder of the Los Angeles-based restaurant chain, decried the decision and accused the board and the Beverage License Association of unfair competitive practices.

"They want to keep us out of Towson because they're afraid of the competition plain and simple," said Mr. Flax, a former federal prosecutor. "We will ask our attorneys to look into this."

California Pizza Kitchens Inc. has 45 stores in 12 states. The Towson operation would be its third in Maryland. The company has a restaurant in Montgomery Mall and is about to open in Annapolis Mall.

The company has a lease on the vacant Mano Swartz furrier store on York Road, which closed in December 1992.

Mr. Flax said the company plans to demolish the building and erect a one-story restaurant with underground parking.

"We've never been turned down for a liquor license or by a community before," Mr. Flax said. "This is very unfortunate, because we want to offer redevelopment, jobs as well as a quality, family-oriented restaurant."

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