Wine bar's location has some seeing red

Cafe: Neighbors of the soon-to-open business on Route 108 fear it will bring noise and traffic congestion.

April 02, 2003|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

An upscale wine and coffee bar might seem a perfect fit on Route 108, which serves some of Howard County's most affluent neighborhoods. But people living along the crowded highway fear that a proposed bar there would become another traffic hazard.

Stephen Wecker and his younger brother, Robert, hope to attract commuters and the after-dinner crowd to the Iron Bridge Wine Company in the former Crown's Pub across from Clarkland Farms, home of former state Sen. James Clark Jr.

Late this month, the Weckers plan to begin serving coffee and pastries to commuters heading to work, starting at 6:30 a.m., and light, California-style fare from late afternoon until midnight, seven days a week.

"You don't see anything really like it locally," Stephen Wecker said. "We think it's a concept people are going to embrace."

Neighbors are worried about the increased noise and the impact on traffic along the congested road in western Howard.

"It's going to be impossible for people to come in and out there," said Anthony "Skip" Scarpone, whose property adjoins the cafe. "The people who are trying to do this are not familiar with the traffic problems on 108."

Commercial use of the bar predated zoning laws, so was allowed in the residentially zoned area as a nonconforming use. Iron Bridge's operators are seeking permission from the county to continue as a nonconforming use and a variance for outdoor seating for 44 on a patio. The case is to go before the county hearing examiner April 14.

Iron Bridge property owner Donald J. Reuwer Jr., a major Howard County developer, purchased the pub last year.

Reuwer called traffic concerns unfounded, saying customers won't arrive during peak hours of evening traffic. "Nobody is going to go out of their way to fight the traffic on Route 108," he said.

Reuwer has applied for a change to commercial zoning through the county's comprehensive rezoning process, noting financing concerns.

"A nonconforming use is more difficult to finance," Reuwer wrote in a letter to the Planning Board. "Banks are very reluctant to finance a property that has a single use."

He promised to enact a restrictive covenant, limiting the types of businesses that would be able to operate on the land.

Nearby residents do not think that any business belongs in that space. More than 30 neighbors have submitted written testimony to the county Planning Board opposing the proposed zoning change.

"We frankly want to get rid of it. We want it to be converted back to residential," Scarpone said.

The Weckers think the wine bar will be a much more "low-key" establishment than neighbors imagine.

"We hope to be a benefit to them, not a hindrance," said Robert Wecker. "The focus will be on fresh, scratch cooking," he added. "We're trying not to be stuffy or snooty, putting on airs about wine."

Robert Wecker -- whose business card lists his title as "the wine guy" -- said he developed a love of the beverage when he spent a summer studying under a chef in Ireland while earning an associate's degree in hotel and restaurant management at Baltimore International College. He spent three years traveling to France and the Napa Valley in California while selling wine for a wholesaler.

Stephen Wecker's experience in restaurants stems from more than eight years as president of Elkridge Furnace Inn, which he and his brother, Daniel, restored and operated.

Retail would be an important component of the cafe, the Wecker brothers said. In addition to 20 premium wines that will be sold by the glass at the cafe, more than 250 wines would be available for sale by the bottle. Patrons would be able to enjoy food and wine together without paying a restaurant markup, Stephen Wecker said.

The Weckers also expect to sell whole-bean coffee and gourmet foods. They are working with a California company to develop a line of wine-based private label products, including tapenades and pasta sauces, Stephen Wecker said. The two are also planning to play host to wine tastings and other events.

Residents say Iron Bridge customers would be in danger when turning in and out of its parking lot from the busy two-lane road. They also predict that drivers would tie up the road when they turn to pick up their morning coffee and pastry at the planned drive-through window.

"We have a lot of trouble with traffic backing up in both directions," said George J. Paytas, a board member of the Beaverbrook Community Association.

Scarpone said a hill west of the parking lot blocks visibility to people exiting east. With no turn lane, traffic backs up behind anyone turning off Route 108 into a driveway.

"During rush hour, you're at the mercy of somebody letting you in," he said.

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