Neighbors oppose alcohol-free late-night club

Residents fear club will worsen crime

legislation prepared

April 27, 1999|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Born and raised in Brooklyn Park, 28-year-old businessman Mark Avery says he wants to give something back to his community.

But residents of this established, working-class neighborhood battling drugs and crime are saying no thanks to his offer: an alcohol-free after-hours dance spot called Club Lightnin'.

"This is a neighborhood in need of help, not hindrance," said Joseph Collini, president of the Brooklyn Heights Improvement Association. "We've made a lot of strides, and it seems like opening a nightclub will go against what we're trying to do."

Although the community has been on the decline for several years, residents say they're encouraged by recent changes. Association members have been working with county health and zoning officials to clean up litter and to force absentee landlords to maintain their rental properties

"We're struggling with crimes and drugs; we have kids that don't attend school," said Lyn Shifflet, secretary of the community association. "We have the police here enough during the night, and we feel this will add to the problems in the neighborhood."

The residents' concerns -- and multiple problems at a similar club in Baltimore County -- prompted District 1 County Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle to draft a bill that would make it impossible to open a nightclub in the county that operates after 2 a.m.

The proposed legislation would classify clubs as special exceptions, instead of permitted uses, in commercial districts. To obtain the exception for a club that could be open until 2 a.m. would require a public hearing process and meeting other proposed requirements.

"As we're learning about problems in other jurisdictions, we need to be careful about bringing this in without some way to put guidelines on how it will operate," Beidle said.

The councilwoman said county police also are concerned about the club's potential drain on the force's manpower, based on problems with the Twilight Zone, an after-hours club in Arbutus.

Baltimore County police would not discuss the club because the county is involved in a legal battle to shut it down.

Many disturbances requiring police attention have occurred on the Twilight Zone's parking lot since it opened in 1995. Baltimore County police officers have described the club as "lawless, chaotic and, at times, nearly riotous," according to court records. One officer said, "I fear for my safety each time I am called to the Twilight Zone," court records said.

Avery, who owns six bail-bond businesses in the Baltimore area, wants to open Club Lightnin' in a 14,000-square-foot space beneath Ollie's Bargain Outlet in a shopping center at 11th Avenue and Ritchie Highway. He envisions a place for two age groups. Between 8 p.m. and midnight on Friday and Saturday nights, the club would be open to teen-agers. From midnight until 5 a.m., it would cater to customers 21 and older.

A Brooklyn Park resident, Avery says the community needs Club Lightnin' because its teen-agers and young adults have few places to gather.

"If you don't do something for the young adults and teens, my bail-bond business is just going to keep increasing," Avery said. "Cops tell kids to get off the corner, but if there's nowhere else to go, where are you going to go? Another corner? The politicians don't have the answer."

Avery said he would hire off-duty police officers to patrol the parking lot.

Beidle and others opposed to the club acknowledge that teen-agers in the area have little to do, but they don't think Avery has come up with a great solution.

"I'm not against dancing," said Shifflet, 35, a lifelong neighborhood resident. "I have a 12-year-old who goes to DARE dances at her middle school. But I don't like the idea of encouraging clubbing."

Petitions against the club have been circulating, and a bus load of opponents plan to show up at Monday's County Council public hearing to testify in support of Beidle's bill.

Near the Baltimore City line, Brooklyn Park seems like a mixture of two neighborhoods. On the east side of Ritchie Highway are brick row homes built before World War II. Larger single-family homes in Victorian and Colonial styles sit on the west side of the highway.

"There are a whole lot of good people here, and I don't think people from other areas realize it," Shifflet said. "Some people have been here for years and years, and they don't want to give up on the community."

Beidle says one of her primary concerns is that an alcohol-free, after-hours club would not be subject to restrictions that establishments holding liquor licenses must meet. Under the proposed legislation, after-hours clubs, or "dance halls," would have to close by 2 a.m. and could not be within 1,000 feet of a church, school, library or park. The provisions would apply to any building permit not issued by April 5. The bill would not affect county establishments that hold a liquor license.

County health and fire officials are reviewing Avery's building permit application. If Beidle's bill passes, Avery said, he plans to sue the county for targeting his business.

The regulations would block Avery from opening Club Lightnin' because of the club's proximity to the Brooklyn Park Library and Park Elementary School.

"He wants to pick up the overflow from the bars," Beidle said. "The community is opposed and we're trying to help them have a voice in this."

Avery, a 1989 Brooklyn Park High School graduate, says that opponents of his club are out of touch with young people in the community. During his teen-age years, he said, he and his friends enjoyed going to Sierra's and L.A.'s, clubs that held teen nights.

"I'm a Brooklyn Park native trying to make Brooklyn Park a better place," he says.

Pub Date: 4/27/99

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