Liquor license laws keep restaurants out of Towson, business leaders complain

October 30, 1994|By Pat Gilbert | Pat Gilbert,Sun Staff Writer

The difficulty obtaining liquor licenses has cost Towson the chance to become a restaurant area like Baltimore's Little Italy, Baltimore County business leaders contend.

Several chains have dropped attempts to move into the vacant Hutzler's building because of the difficulty in acquiring a liquor license.

And last week, California Pizza Kitchen Inc. announced it is abandoning -- for now -- an attempt to put a restaurant in Towson south of the Hutzler site. The move came after a Baltimore County Circuit Court judge upheld a county Liquor Board's ruling that a license the company wanted to transfer to its restaurant had expired.

Under county liquor laws, licenses can be transferred only within an election district. Each district has a maximum number of licenses based on population -- with some exceptions -- and no new license may be issued until the number falls below the maximum.

Problems caused by the laws create a bad climate, business leaders said.

"This is not good for business in general because retailers benefit from the trade that family restaurants attract," said Christopher S. Schardt, general manager of Towson Town Center.

Susan K. DiLonardo, executive director of the Towson Business Association, said California Pizza Kitchen was willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to redevelop a vacant property "and the county said, in effect, no thanks."

Mr. Schardt said several restaurant chains -- which he declined to identify -- pulled out of negotiations to move into the Hutzler building because of the liquor license situation.

The Hahn Co. of San Diego, owner of Towson Town Center and the Hutzler building, has plans to turn the vacant department store into mixed retail and restaurant use.

The California Pizza Kitchen court action came two weeks ago when Judge Dana M. Levitz upheld a Liquor Board ruling that the license used by Szechuan Empire Restaurant had expired before California Pizza Kitchen applied for its transfer.

Larry Flax, co-founder of California Pizza Kitchen, said his company is terminating its lease agreement with owners of the vacant Mano Swartz building on York Road. He said the key factor was the long time to obtain a liquor license.

"Maybe we can revisit the situation if access to a liquor license becomes easier," Mr. Flax said.

Liquor Board administrator Larry Chambers said District 9, which includes Towson, is allowed 37 licenses and has 61, with exceptions included.

Among the exceptions are four new deluxe restaurant licenses that special legislation allowed to be added to each district, three special licenses for Towson Commons on York Road and one license that could be transferred from outside the district for a dinner theater.

Before Towson Commons opened in 1992, the Liquor Board granted the four deluxe licenses to businesses there.

The Towson Commons special licenses are unused but are unavailable to family restaurants outside the Commons.

"We need more flexibility," said Wayne M. Skinner, president of Towson Development Corp.

Mr. Skinner suggested that legislation make the Towson business area a special liquor license district for family restaurants.

However, some owners of established restaurants object, saying business suffered in recent years because of the recession, and there isn't enough trade for more restaurants.

More choices attract more patrons, Ms. DiLonardo said. "Look at the success of Little Italy with all the restaurants located there," she said.

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