Liquor license approval reversed

Judge's ruling notes law restricting monopolies

Residents celebrate decision


November 19, 2003|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

A plan to open a waterfront bar and restaurant in a quiet village in southern Anne Arundel County has suffered a crippling setback, now that a judge has reversed a county liquor board decision granting the business a license to serve alcohol.

Judge Paul A. Hackner of the county Circuit Court said the liquor board's April decision violated a law barring the same person from having financial ties to more than one liquor-licensed establishment.

The judge said Charles N. Bassford, who owns the Galesville restaurant, also owns at least two other restaurants with liquor licenses in the county. It did not matter, the judge said, that a business associate, William R. Woodfield Jr., had applied for the license.

The Friday ruling has sparked celebration in Galesville, a tiny West River village where residents had signed petitions and raised money door-to-door to fight a liquor license they feared would attract rowdy, out-of-town revelers.

The liquor board has yet to determine the ruling's repercussions for other license holders.

But the rare reversal is a clear rebuke to the board.

"This decision overturns about 60 years of liquor board practice and precedent," Chairman Richard Bittner said yesterday in an interview.

A state anti-monopoly measure passed in the days after Prohibition bars liquor license holders in Anne Arundel County from having any interest, direct or indirect, in another county liquor license. Most Maryland counties have similar restrictions.

But Bittner, a board member since 1990, said the body has let husband-wife business partners and small local entrepreneurs have more than one license, so long as the names on the applications differ and the establishments are separately managed.

Bittner defended the practice, saying that the board has been extremely conservative about issuing new liquor licenses of any kind.

He said that multiple licenses have been granted to perhaps a half-dozen people running related establishments.

Among them, he said, are Marriott hotels, the owners of the Double T Diners and other restaurants with more than one location, including Adam's The Place For Ribs and Garry's Grill.

Trevor Kiessling, the board's lawyer, said the ruling does not apply to other cases. But he said the liquor board will have to respond in some way, not least because the ruling gives liquor license opponents a proven avenue to challenge the board's decisions.

"We're going to have to address the issue one way or another, whether by appeal or by legislation or by other corrective action," he said. "The board doesn't want to get reversed."

Kiessling said the board was unlikely to go back through its existing licenses to root out multiple licensees. But he said that if the board chooses, the issue could be pursued as each of the county's about 460 licenses come up for annual renewal.

Woodfield and Bassford, local businessmen, had hoped to turn a one-time icehouse on Tenthouse Creek into a 200-seat waterfront restaurant and bar. It would be called Woodfield's. But its landlord, owner and operator, Annapolis Produce and Restaurant Supply Inc., is owned by Bassford.

Through separate corporations, Bassford also owns or co-owns three other county restaurants that serve alcohol: the Topside Inn and Steamboat Landing, both in Galesville, and Annapolis Seafood in Edgewater.

Woodfield is an employee of Bassford's Annapolis Produce. But Woodfield formed a corporation, Superior Woodfields, to apply for the new restaurant's liquor license.

Woodfield said in court papers that he would manage alcoholic beverage and seafood sales at the restaurant under a management agreement with Annapolis Produce.

At a hearing in April, the board accepted Woodfield's portrayal of Bassford as no more than a landlord. It granted the liquor license, with restrictions on sales and operating hours to placate angry Galesville residents, who later appealed.

But Hackner ruled Friday that there was no clear line between Woodfield and Bassford's financial interests.

"There is no way a reasonable fact finder could have come to any conclusion other than Mr. Bassford has an interest in the sale of liquor, regardless of how the application [for] the liquor license was crafted," the judge stated.

Bassford did not return messages left at his home and office yesterday. A secretary said he was on vacation.

Woodfield said he had not seen the decision.

"Until I talk to my lawyer, I have no comment to make to you or anyone else," he said.

He said that Tropical Storm Isabel destroyed the restaurant's kitchen, indefinitely delaying its plans for opening.

Mary Tod Winchester, a sixth-generation Galesvillian and president of the West River Improvement Association, said the ruling was proof of the power of an organized community.

"Fighting this fight will help us remain a true village and not a cookie-cutter tourist town," she said yesterday.

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