Arundel seeks to ease liquor licensing rules

Proposal aims to attract more restaurants to area

December 26, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens plans to ask the General Assembly to ease liquor licensing restrictions this spring in hopes of attracting more restaurants to the county.

Although county officials have yet to craft a specific proposal, they hope to make it easier for restaurant owners to open multiple locations that serve liquor. Under current restrictions, an owner can obtain one license anywhere in the county and another in one of five areas that are designated as underserved.

Owens and the county's economic development director, William Badger, argue that Anne Arundel does not have enough restaurants to serve its population.

"I just want to create more choice," Owens said. "The county is growing so quickly that we need to open it up more."

Some restaurant owners in the county have opposed past efforts to loosen restrictions, saying independent businesses deserve protection from chain restaurants that could open three or more locations.

Members of the county delegation to Annapolis said they have to balance the interests of independents with the countywide demand for more restaurants. Democratic Sen. Philip C. Jimeno said he and fellow legislators met with Badger recently and are awaiting draft legislation.

"I told them to put together a bill, and we'll digest that," Jimeno said. "I think it's time to look at the issue again."

Some delegation members favor making it easier for restaurant owners to obtain multiple licenses.

"Anne Arundel can no longer afford to be a protectionist, backwater county," said Del. John R. Leopold, a Pasadena Republican. "Providing choices to the consumer, I think that should be paramount. It should not be government's goal to protect certain interests from competition."

Before 2000, Anne Arundel had some of the tightest liquor restrictions in the state, limiting restaurant owners and chains to one license each. Under legislation passed that year, the county created target areas in which restaurants could obtain additional licenses. The new laws allowed chains such as Outback Steakhouse to add second locations.

Badger has pushed for the county to attract more restaurants. At his suggestion, the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp. commissioned a study this year to examine the effects of county liquor laws.

The study, conducted by market researcher ZHA Inc., says county residents want more restaurants and have fewer dining choices than neighbors in Montgomery and Howard counties.

"There is significant unmet demand for full-service restaurants in Anne Arundel County," the report reads.

The report also says the 2000 law changes did little damage to independent restaurants, noting that independents have obtained 15 of 34 licenses created using the new rules.

The study concludes with recommendations that the county:

Expand from five to 13 the target areas for additional licenses.

Create different licensing classifications for chain and independent restaurants.

Offer incentives to restaurants that would open in underserved areas.

Badger said he would favor creating more target zones and offering incentives for restaurants that locate in underdeveloped areas.

He said the law is also outdated because it classifies a as a single entity a chain like Outback, even though Outback owns other brands such as Carrabba's Italian Grill. Current law allows Outback to operate two steakhouses with liquor licenses in the county but would not allow it to seek a liquor license for Carrabba's. Each brand should be separate under the law, Badger said.

He and Owens added that the county isn't ready to unveil its specific requests to the General Assembly.

Opinion in the industry is mixed, although many restaurant owners say a loosening of laws would benefit chains more than independent restaurants.

"Our position is that we have no position," said Melvin Thompson, vice president of government affairs for the Maryland Restaurant Association. "We represent both of those entities, so we really can't choose a favorite child."

Rich McClure, owner of Carrol's Creek CafM-i in Annapolis, said he worries the county could lose some of what makes it distinctive if the licensing laws become too relaxed.

"I see that there is a need for multiple licensing," he said. "But you want to keep the unique things that make the area work. We have lots of little businesses that make it interesting."

McClure said the county should consider maintaining a cap on the number of licenses allowed so small businesses are not overwhelmed.

John Christopoulos, owner of Christo's Discount Liquor in Glen Burnie, said he supported the 2000 initiative to offer additional licenses but is less sure this time around.

"I do have a little trepidation when it comes to more licenses because then you might have the same five restaurants, and that's it," said Christopoulos, who has worked on licensing issues for the county's Licensed Beverage Association.

Christopoulos said he would need to see a specific proposal before developing a position.

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