Liquor board on the rocks

May 25, 1994

Don't try too hard to wring some sense from the Baltimore County liquor board's denial of a liquor license to a national restaurant chain that aims to open in Towson. It could drive you to drink.

The board has ruled that a liquor license for a defunct Chinese restaurant on York Road in Towson cannot be transferred three blocks south to the vacant Mano Swartz building, where California Pizza Kitchens Inc. wants to build a new family eatery, because the pizza company's application for the transfer came six days late. This decision was reached despite the county law office's finding that the transfer could be made legally.

Keep in mind this is the same liquor board that has preserved liquor licenses held by major developers for as long as six years, far beyond the 180-day limit for an unused license. Indeed, the local Beverage License Association of tavern owners has often complained about the liquor board's past favorable treatment of fat-cat license holders. These complaints are the likely cause of County Executive Roger Hayden's recent decision to replace William Snyder as chairman of the liquor board. Some bar owners were irritated also by Mr. Snyder's haughty manner and, with an election coming up, Mr. Hayden apparently felt the politically safe course was to placate the influential beverage association by unseating Mr. Snyder.

The board's decision against California Pizza Kitchens could therefore be read as a signal to the tavern owners that the fat cats no longer hold sway. And though the board members probably knew in advance that their ruling would be appealed -- as it will be -- they can still claim they did their best for the bar owners. Meanwhile, the county law office could find itself in Circuit Court having to defend a liquor board decision that went against the law office's own opinion!

If all this political and legal tap-dancing weren't maddening enough, there's the upshot that a respected restaurant chain would be shut out of Towson. Is this the kind of result that Mr. Hayden, the self-described anti-politician businessman, really wants his liquor board to encourage? As for the tavern owners' argument that the pizza restaurant would give them more unwanted competition, the fact is that family restaurants and taverns are different types of establishments with different clienteles.

This ruling by the executive-appointed liquor board underscores why most vestiges of Baltimore County's bad old days of political patronage have long been removed. Maybe it's time the current model of the liquor board was likewise shelved.

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