Strange brew Howard County: Prospect of giant wine and beer seller looms over liquor board.

December 11, 1996

EVEN IF Total Beverage, the alcohol superstore owned by the Landover-based Dart Group Corp., fails to win approval from Howard County to operate the area's biggest beer and wine outlet in Ellicott City, it will have left its mark.

The plan to build a 15,000-square-foot store that would dwarf its competitors in size and merchandise has fused an odd coalition -- a church pastor and fearful mom-and-pop liquor store operators -- and has made state legislators balk at an important proposal to create an appointed liquor board for the county.

Owners of existing county liquor stores fear the unbridled capitalism that a beer and wine retailer the size of a skating rink would bring, while the pastor of Bethel Baptist Church is uncomfortable with a large store selling alcohol in the Long Gate shopping center across from his church. The retailer, which has two stores in Virginia, faces technical problems that could derail its chances of coming to Howard.

The county's liquor board will determine Total Beverage's fate, but in an odd twist, Total Beverage already has determined the liquor board's future.

Members of the County Council serve as the liquor board, a duty that should have long ago been divorced from their job description. The council has sought to abdicate that role and supported legislation to create an appointed board instead. But rejection of that proposal by county delegates to the General Assembly underscores the potency of the Total Beverage issue.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a west Columbia Democrat, told her colleagues: "When we say we're concerned about small business and we're considering granting a license to a store that would be absolutely mammoth, I don't think it's the proper time for a change." Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, an Ellicott City Republican, argues that it makes sense for the council to do double-duty as the liquor board, saying elected representatives should "make those tough calls."

Still, the potential for political pressure is part of the problem with an elected liquor board. Particularly in a case like Total Beverage, chances are too great that a decision could be influenced more by what is expedient than by what state and county codes require. An appointed board would not face such pressure.

Pub Date: 12/11/96

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