Pact shifts liquor licenses to Owings Mills 4 taken from eastern Balto. Co. pave way for restaurant park

March 01, 1996|By Larry Carson and Liz Atwood | Larry Carson and Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County plans to shift several liquor licenses from the Eastside to Owings Mills -- part of a politically sensitive compromise designed to boost economic development in the fast-growing area.

The deal worked out between government officials and the Baltimore County License Beverage Association -- a trade group that has fought proposals to increase the number of licenses -- will pave the way for a restaurant park proposed by the Rouse Co.

But the deal also highlights the delicate nature of such transfers, which can determine whether restaurants and bars locate in an area. Major projects in White Marsh, Towson and Timonium were not included in the deal to shift four licenses from the Eastside, an area that has jealously guarded its oversupply of licenses.

Still, county officials were pleased with the compromise, which would benefit the Rouse project, proposed to have four or five restaurants along Red Run Boulevard.

County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III said the deal would help the county's treasury. "We've got to get new revenues," he said.

The deal "will have a tremendous impact on the development of the New Town area," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a county Democrat who is sponsoring legislation needed for the transfer. The county's Senate delegation will discuss the bill today.

The once burgeoning Essex-Middle River area has lost thousands of industrial jobs, while expensive new homes, offices and stores are going up inOwings Mills. But the distribution of county liquor licenses has not kept pace with the population shifts.

For example, the Eastside's 15th election District has more than 100 extra licenses, according to a legal formula that permits one license per 2,500 residents. Owings Mills' 4th District is at its limit or slightly under, said John "Jack" Milani, president of the County License Beverage Association.

That imbalance has been preserved by prohibiting transfers across districts. As a result, buying a license can cost up to $130,000 where demand is high, like Towson's 9th District.

County officials have tried in the past to accommodate growth, only to run up against the political influence of local tavern and restaurant owners, who supported the strict liquor license laws established at the end of Prohibition.

"There's a set of rules. People have invested time and money and followed those rules," Mr. Milani said. It wouldn't be fair, he added, to change the rules "midstream."

Through the years, growth advocates did add exceptions to the county liquor laws: special licenses for shopping centers, large office buildings and hotels, malls, luxury-class restaurants. License transfers also were arranged to encourage the revitalization of central Pikesville and the development of Towson Commons.

The proposed transfers to Owings Mills could make the licenses available in October, about the same time Rouse firms up plans for the restaurant park. That is also the time the County Council will rule on Rouse's petition to rezone 14 acres.

Alton J. Scavo, a Rouse vice president, said there are no firm plans or tenants yet, but the company contemplates a park similar to one it has built in Columbia. The park would require perhaps four liquor licenses.

"It's a fair compromise," said Mr. Milani, whose association has vigorously opposed the creation of new licenses out of fear that well-financed national competitors will bankrupt its members.

"I think Owings Mills makes sense," said Mr. Milani, a Gwynn Oak tavern owner. "You have the T. Rowe Price project there, and new homes going up."

But while the compromise will promote development in Owings Mills, it does nothing for other growing areas. For example, the $45 million Main Street entertainment-retail project by Nottingham Properties in White Marsh will have to buy existing licenses or qualify for new ones under an exception to the law.

"We're working within the current system and it seems to be working," said Joe Credit, senior vice president at Nottingham Properties.

A proposed restaurant park on Aylesbury Road off Timonium Road may have more trouble finding existing licenses. Mr. Milani said the Timonium project came up too close to the legislative session to work out any agreement.

Meanwhile, community and business leaders want more licenses in the Towson area.

"Towson has a small residential population, but a large daytime population," said Edward J. Gilliss, president of the Towson Partnership. "Towson needs more licenses."

But State Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, whose district includes Belair Road, has said he worries about creating vacant storefronts on his district's main street as the result of granting new licenses.

"I don't see where national chains are having a problem [getting licenses]," he said. "How many licenses do you put in one spot? The last thing I want to see is vacant stores."

Mr. Ruppersberger said liquor licenses must be handled on a case-by-case basis. "My philosophy is to try to work out a consensus with the parties involved," he said.

Although it is important to encourage growth, helping out-of-state businesses at the expense of established local owners isn't growth, he added.

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