Harbour House sale revives dispute

April 02, 1995|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,Sun Staff Writer

The pending sale of the Harbour House, a quiet old waterside restaurant rarely visited by late-night revelers, is reigniting a dispute between Annapolis residents and restaurant owners over closing times for downtown taverns, but all the roles are reversed.

Alderman Louise Hammond, who usually fights late-night closings in the historic district, argues that the 500-seat restaurant at the end of City Dock should be sold with its license for 2 a.m. closing intact.

Restaurant owners, some of whom have clashed with Mrs. Hammond over their own bids for late-night liquor licenses, accuse her of playing favorites. They note that the restaurant is owned by George Phillips, a longtime friend and campaign contributor. The 2 a.m. license could add hundreds of thousands of dollars to the sale price of the restaurant.

"It's discrimination," said Harvey Blonder, who this week will argue at the Court of Special Appeals that critics such as Mrs. Hammond illegally blocked him from receiving a 2 a.m. license for his Market Circle restaurant, Buddy's Crabs and Ribs.

Mrs. Hammond, Ward 1 Democrat, countered that her opponents are raising the issue of late-night closing to discredit her and to undermine the Ward 1 sector study, a document the city council adopted last year that prohibits new downtown restaurants from receiving 2 a.m. liquor licenses. Harbour House was an existing restaurant that kept its 2 a.m. license, she said.

"The transfer of a 2 o'clock is a standard procedure. This is just an opportunity for people who are trying to ruin the sector study and attack me," she said of her critics.

Meanwhile, historic district residents agreed at a community meeting to support Harbour House's 2 a.m. license and Mrs. Hammond. She was merely upholding the sector study, which allows restaurants with 2 a.m. closing times to transfer that privilege with the sale of the business, they argued.

"If that restaurant ends up with 500 people out at 2 a.m., then so be it," said Jim Vance, a historic district activist. "We set out those rules because we need to limit the 2 o'clock closings in the historic district. We need to adhere to the rules."

The controversy was set off earlier this month when Mr. Phillips asked Eileen P. Fogarty, the city's planning and zoning director, to determine whether he could legally sell his restaurant with a late closing time. Although his 2 a.m. license is valid, his conditional use permit, which allows him to operate, is vague on that point, Ms. Fogarty said.

Also at issue is whether Mr. Phillips lost his 2 a.m. closing privileges because his restaurant frequently closes earlier. A "use it or lose it" clause in the law bars restaurants from maintaining a 2 a.m. closing time if they don't use it once every six months, she said.

The restaurant has furnished the Planning and Zoning Department with guest checks and time cards showing the restaurant did business into the early-morning hours, said Kurt A. Phillips, who helps run the restaurant with his father, who was out of town and could not be reached.

When Mr. Phillips did not hear from Ms. Fogarty, he asked Mrs. Hammond for help, and she went to Ms. Fogarty, a move that opponents have interpreted as lobbying for a friend, despite her usual stance against 2 a.m. licenses.

"I think Alderman Hammond's advocacy on behalf of George Phillips to have a 2 a.m. liquor license flies in the face of everything she's been advocating for the past year," said Alderman Carl O. Snowden, Ward 5 Democrat. "For her to argue that a friend should sell his business to a new buyer with no track record downtown is inconsistent."

Mrs. Hammond said she was not lobbying for Mr. Phillips, but merely inquiring about his case.

"Yes, George Phillips is a friend of mine, and he's a wonderful man," she said. "But I was just doing my job and making an inquiry for him, like I do for all my constituents."

The question now rests with City Attorney Paul G. Goetzke. Ms. Fogarty gave him the the restaurant's file Friday afternoon and asked for his advice.

But whatever Mr. Goetzke decides, some aldermen say the city council will have no choice but to get involved. And once the council tinkers with late-night closings for one restaurant, others are certain to follow.

"If Harbour House is granted a 2 a.m. liquor license, then all those restaurants that feel they have been denied may feel they have a case of arbitrary and capricious action by the city council," said Alderman Ellen O. Moyer, Ward 8 Democrat. "This rests in the hands of the city council."

Longtime rivals of Mrs. Hammond and her husband, John, who previously served on the council, say the latest dispute demonstrates problems in a city where tough laws are arbitrarily enforced.

"The Hammonds have fought development tooth and toenail, and now it's coming back to haunt them," said Lou Hyatt, one of the city's larger real estate brokers. "If they want to give to one, they ought to give to all."

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