Two-tiered free enterprise?

July 05, 1994

Fairness dictates that if one tavern can stay open until a certain hour, so should the establishment next door. This is so obvious it's hard to believe the city of Annapolis and the courts have spent so much time debating the matter.

Once again this controversy has settled on Buddy's Crabs and Ribs, an eatery in the heart of Annapolis which wants the same rights enjoyed by at least eight other taverns and restaurants -- namely to hold a 2 a.m. liquor license. The City Council finally decided last summer to grant Buddy's that right, but residents appealed in court and won.

Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Eugene M. Lerner ruled the council's decision "capricious" because, having denied Buddy's request before, it didn't offer sufficient reason for changing its mind. What's really capricious, however, is telling a restaurateur to close at midnight when all around him similar establishments stay open. Look at Maria's Italian Ristorante. It's within spitting distance of other restaurants with 2 a.m. licenses and has a pristine record of operation. The council nixed its request anyway.

Residents of Annapolis' Ward 1 are concerned about losing their quality of life to a bunch of rowdy drunks. That's understandable. But this two-tiered structure of closing hours is not the answer. Beyond the fact that this policy bestows unfair advantage upon establishments that already have 2 a.m. licenses, taverns and restaurants are not the source of most of the city's late-night problems. Much of the public drunkenness in Annapolis stems from illegal drinking on boats and on parking lots around City Dock -- ills best fought through better enforcement of noise and disorderly conduct laws.

Improved enforcement is the answer when it comes to bars and eateries, too. If these establishments become public nuisances, they ought to be cited and threatened with the loss of their liquor licenses.

Of course, what residents really want is not better management of these places, but fewer of them. The two-tiered plan is a weapon for discouraging new restaurants from opening.

It's a weapon the city and the courts would refuse to employ if only they could see the obvious -- that the market will dictate when the city has enough restaurants, and that responsible establishments have a right to compete under the same rules as everybody else.

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