Dry diner fights quirky laws Restaurateurs have clout, but that may not ensure a Balto. Co. liquor license

March 03, 1997|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

If it's who you know that's important, Robert and Sandra Worgan should have no trouble getting a liquor license for their bright chrome-and-tile New Towne Diner in Owings Mills.

Their lawyer and expert witness have close ties to county executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger -- ties nearly as close as the appointed liquor board members who sipped soda from Ruppersberger campaign mugs during the Worgans' recent hearing.

But the Worgans may need all that clout -- and more -- to win their fight against a licensing system that even some county officials say is a mess. They also must contend with a legal wrinkle that could bolster their competitors -- while denying the diner a license for years.

"We put our whole life savings into that diner," Robert Worgan said of the $2 million building he and his wife built two years ago at Reisterstown and High Falcon roads, where a popular Twin Kiss burger and ice cream stand stood for decades.

Here's the problem:

Under county law, one liquor license can be issued for every 2,500 new residents in each of the 15 election districts. The district covering Owings Mills and Reisterstown has grown, but is still 212 residents shy of the 47,491 needed to justify a new license, according to county planners' estimates.

The Worgans' population expert disagrees, claiming there are really 47,604 in the district -- more than enough for a new license.

If the Worgans can't convince the liquor board and get a license now, they may be blocked for years by the county's restaurant park law -- a political compromise between the big national chains that want more licenses and a local industry that wants to limit competition.

Under that law, when four licenses move from Essex-Middle River to Owings Mills -- perhaps late this year -- they will count against the population formula. So no new license will be available until 12,500 more people move into the Owings Mills district -- which could take years.

"We would be shut out," Robert Worgan said.

"The only thing you can do is hire a good lawyer and put it in his hands," he said after last week's hearing. Worgan said he has looked to buy an existing license, which can cost up to $125,000, but hasn't found any.

The Worgans' attorney, David F. Mister, is Ruppersberger's former law partner. He represents the county's influential Licensed Beverage Association. And he helped draft the state law that will shift the four licenses from the east side -- where there are far too many for the declining population -- to Owings Mills Town Center for a planned Rouse Co. restaurant park.

Gerald R. Patnode Jr., the Worgans' expert witness, headed Republicans for Ruppersberger in the 1994 election.

So far, the Worgans are holding their own.

Mister got the board to grant a 45-day continuance of their case, while they try to get the county planning department to update a population estimate.

His next move, he said, will be to talk to Robert J. Barrett, special assistant to Ruppersberger and official liaison to the liquor board, to try to get a population recount.

Mister and Patnode said they would never use their friendship with Ruppersberger to appeal for his help. "I wouldn't call Dutch," Mister said.

Such networking may be unnecessary, however.

County Planning Director Arnold F. "Pat" Keller says he is willing to revisit the estimates. County planners are doing that anyway, because of unexpectedly rapid growth since the 1990 census.

"I understand the bind [the Worgans] are in," Keller said. But the facts can't be changed to suit the Worgans, he said, adding, "The figures are the figures."

Keller also lamented the system of General Assembly-controlled county liquor license laws. "This [case] shows you how screwed up the system is."

Pub Date: 3/03/97

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