A maze of regulation

March 13, 2003

BALTIMORE COUNTY'S liquor licensing laws might have been suited for their time: just after repeal of Prohibition, when states stepped in to impose tight regulation and prevent the concentration of bars in any one community. But now these laws foster the inequalities they were designed to address. They need study and overhauling.

James Brochin, a newcomer to the state Senate, is the latest to step into the maze. Senator Brochin co-filed a bill that would allow the transfer of liquor licenses to central Towson to help revitalize the sagging York Road corridor, but he ran headlong into a law that apportions liquor licenses by the population of election districts.

The 15th District, which includes Essex, Middle River and parts of Dundalk, is 92 licenses over its limit, though thanks to grandfather clauses and special exceptions, many of those businesses are in operation. Towson, meanwhile, has no licenses to spare.

Mr. Brochin wanted to transfer licenses there from anywhere in the county. And when County Executive James T. Smith Jr. proposed a compromise that would move three licenses from the 15th, delegates from the east side objected. Those licenses are needed, they said, for the revitalization of the county's eastern waterfront.

Then Mr. Brochin encountered the all-powerful Baltimore County Licensed Beverage Association, a trade group that functions essentially as an informal regulatory agency. Bills that deal with liquor laws are negotiated with the association, which is concerned primarily with the effect a new or transferred license would have on existing bars and restaurants. The association provided a list of 26 current licenses in the Towson area and 15 restaurants that have gone out of business in recent years.

This may seem a trivial matter that could be worked out easily, but big money is at stake. If a restaurateur wants to sell liquor in Towson, he or she needs to find someone in the election district who is willing to sell a license. The going rate is $150,000 to $160,000, which mom-and-pop operations can't afford.

Meanwhile, licenses in Northwest Baltimore County can be had for next to nothing.

Before Prohibition, you could get a license to sell liquor as easily as a marriage license. After repeal, the industry was tightly controlled "to ensure public safety." Today, that's taken to mean "to ensure there's as little competition as possible."

Baltimore County needs to examine its antiquated licensing laws with an eye toward ending inequalities and modernizing the process.

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