The owners of a Pikesville restaurant are about to make a $97,000 profit on a deal they say their business needs to survive, even though critics call it a misuse of a county law intended to revitalize the local business district.
The deal, under which Suburban House sold its full-service liquor license to TGI Friday's and bought a lower-class license from a defunct Rosedale restaurant -- is an unusual twist in the politically inspired patchwork of laws that control local liquor licenses.
So unusual, in fact, that even the Baltimore County Licensed Beverage Association isn't sure what to make of it.
"I can't blame the guys," Joe Sliwka, president of the association, said of the deal by Suburban House owners Mark Horowitz and Joseph R. Stowe.
Even so, his group opposed the deal at a liquor board hearing last week and may appeal the board's approval of it.
"It's a matter of principle," he said. "We thought the law was circumvented."
Though several county officials say the whole labyrinth of liquor license laws should be re-examined as a result of the transaction, they concede that's not politically feasible.
"There should be some kind of review," said liquor board Chairman Philip R. Leyhe Jr., quickly adding that such decisions are beyond his purview.
The issue arose in December when Horowitz and Stowe arranged to sell the liquor license they have owned for 12 years in the Pikesville revitalization district to the TGI Friday's chain for $125,000, with settlement scheduled for Aug. 15.
TGI Friday's wants to build a restaurant in Owings Mills. It is buying a full-service license, allowing a bar for patrons and the sale of package goods.
Help from law
The Suburban House owners took advantage of a law enacted in 1988 to help the old Pikesville business district by allowing licenses to move there from other parts of the county.
Using that law, they arranged to buy another license from a defunct Rosedale restaurant for $28,000. The cheaper license -- and the Pikesville law -- only allow a service bar for servers providing drinks to meal patrons.
Stowe testified Monday that the partners agreed in December to sell their license to raise money for a needed renovation, claiming their restaurant lost $28,000 last year. "We need money to remodel," Stowe said.
But after the sale of their license became public, Stowe and Horowitz said their customers complained, so they started looking for a new license and found one in June.
State Sen. F. Vernon Boozer, a Towson Republican, was trustee for the defunct Rosedale restaurant's license, and he represents the Suburban House owners.
The board approved the transfer Monday, noting that it is not illegal.
Never seen deal like it
Even so, Leyhe said he's never seen a deal like it since joining the board in 1979.
David F. Mister, an attorney for the licensed beverage association, told the board that the case made him "extremely uncomfortable" because he helped create the Pikesville law in 1988.
Normally, state law prevents liquor licenses from moving across election district lines. New licenses become available when the population increases.
Over the years, however, those restrictions trapped hundreds of old licenses in economically depressed areas in the eastern county, while areas where development is increasing, including Towson, Owings Mills and White Marsh, could not get enough.
To accommodate national chain restaurants, shopping malls, hotels and large office buildings, the county's General Assembly contingent has allowed specific exceptions to the law, instead of revising the whole system.
The legislators dance a thin line between the interests of small local business owners and big national chains that demand more licenses in the name of economic development.
Critics say the Suburban House deal points up the need for a general review of county liquor license laws, though most concede that is unlikely.
"I think the political reality is that the legislation isn't going to change," said Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat. "That doesn't mean it shouldn't be reviewed."
But Kamenetz -- with state Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, an Owings Mills-Pikesville Democrat, and Pikesville Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Nancy Garfinkel -- defends the law allowing transfer of licenses into Pikesville, though only two licenses have moved in nine years.
"The law is absolutely helpful," Garfinkel said. "We don't have the land to bring in a restaurant park."
Hollinger concedes that liquor laws could be more logically drawn. But Baltimore County's laws are less arbitrary and petty than those in some other counties, she argues.
"The only thing they can do is for the county to appoint a commission to look at the whole law," Hollinger said.
Sliwka of the licensed beverage association said that in the fall, his group will be looking for yet another law from the 1998 General Assembly session -- to close the Pikesville loophole.
Pub Date: 8/03/97