Meeting set about stage at Bohager's Some city officials say venue violates laws for area's zoning

Its removal ordered

Restaurant's platform doesn't change status, the owner says

March 02, 1998|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

The concert stage in Bohager's Bar and Grill in Fells Point is no larger than a walk-in closet, yet it has attracted the attention of several city officials and no fewer than 200 residents of the historic waterfront area who are demanding that it be removed.

During the past year, Bohager's elevated stage has showcased some of the biggest names in popular music -- including Paula Cole and Third Eye Blind -- drawing hundreds of patrons from the suburbs and sparking a heated public debate over the restaurant's transformation into a major music venue.

Some city officials contend the structure violates Baltimore's zoning laws and a year ago ordered that the stage be removed. Bohager's neighbors say the stage -- and the rowdy crowds it often attracts -- is a threat to their way of life.

But Damian Bohager, operator of the bar at 515 S. Eden St., insists that his concert stage doesn't change Bohager's legal status as a restaurant. He has appealed a violation notice issued last year by Donna Johnson, the city's chief of zoning enforcement, and has applied to the Board of Municipal Zoning Appeals for a permit that would allow him to keep the stage. After two postponements, a public meeting on the matter will be held tomorrow.

"I really can't see what all the fuss is about," Bohager said. "The stage in no way changes the way I've been operating. Bohager's is still a restaurant. For as long as we've been open, we've had live entertainment."

Bohager's position has won conditional support from the city Planning Department, which decided last week that a concert hall in Fells Point would be good for the city.

Bohager sees the public controversy over his business expansion as "part of the price you have to pay to do business in Baltimore." Neighbors have been complaining about the bar since it opened nearly six years ago.

Each spring, they ask the city's liquor board to revoke the bar's license. In the fall, they complain to the zoning board about concerts held at the establishment. And in between, they appeal to city officials -- including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke -- for relief from what they say is a "monster" in their back yard.

"The community is not necessarily opposed to Bohager's, we just want Damian to be a better neighbor," said Wade Price, who lives a block from the bar. "People come out of the bar drunk, urinate publicly, leave litter everywhere and get in fights."

For years, residents of the greater Fells Point area have been trying to prevent the proliferation of bars. The neighborhood has 113 liquor licenses in 114 blocks from Central Avenue east to Chester Street and from Baltimore Street south to the harbor, according to liquor board records. The bars have the capacity to serve more than 7,000 drinkers.

Neighbors have complaints

Critics of the Fells Point drinking establishments have long complained that large bars such as Bohager's attract underage drinkers from the suburbs.

In June 1995, two teen-agers walking on a Harford County highway were fatally struck by a car driven by a 20-year-old Baldwin man who allegedly had been drinking hours earlier at Bohager's and another Fells Point bar. The man was convicted )) of homicide by motor vehicle while intoxicated and sentenced to four years in jail.

The accident caused an outcry in Fells Point. Residents called for the liquor board to do a better job enforcing the city's liquor laws, and complaints about underage drinking, excessive noise and crowd-control problems at Bohager's were brought to the attention of city officials.

Site for fund-raisers

But even Bohager's critics say that the bar is more than just a gathering spot for rowdy drinkers. The site, with its capacity of more than 1,000, often plays host to charity events and political fund-raisers for elected officials -- including Gov. Parris N. Glendening and former state Sen. John A. Pica Jr.

The bar has also drawn the attention of state prosecutors. In July, a state grand jury subpoenaed the licensing records of Bohager's and seven other bars as part of an investigation into allegations that close connections between license holders and liquor inspectors produced favoritism in enforcement.

But it is Bohager's concerts that have fueled the neighborhood's ire.

Seating law

Under state law, restaurants in Maryland must have tables with at least 75 seats permanently available to diners. Bohager claims that, despite the stage and other renovations he has made, the "required seats are always here."

But Johnson, chief of zoning enforcement, is convinced that Bohager's is no longer a restaurant. On more than one occasion, city inspectors have visited the bar and found an inadequate number of tables and chairs.

"There is language in the zoning code that covers what Bohager's is -- and that is a concert hall," Johnson said.

As Bohager appeals the zoning violation, his neighbors to the north and east are becoming more and more frustrated with unruly patrons who flock to Bohager's every weekend.

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