Appeals Court OKs bid for liquor license

Entrepreneur's plan for crab house in Woodfield's building not off ground

November 10, 2006|By SUSAN GVOZDAS | SUSAN GVOZDAS,Special to the Sun

The state's highest court has ended a 3 1/2 -year battle over the historic Woodfield's building in Galesville, but plans to reopen the place as a crab house are far from settled.

The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled Monday that William Woodfield Jr. could get a liquor license to run the new business and that there was no proof that property owner Nick Bassford had a secret interest in the venture and was trying to circumvent county laws that limit people to one license.

Despite the victory, Woodfield said this week that he doesn't know when the restaurant will be ready to open. The building at 4701 Woodfield Road was damaged by a fire in March.

"Right now, we've got a license and no business and no bar," Woodfield said.

Bassford did not return calls for comment.

The ruling came as a blow to opponents of the project, who claimed that the 200-seat crab house on Tenthouse Creek would draw traffic, noise and mischief from drunken patrons.

"The community didn't have a problem with the other restaurants because they were all located on the waterfront and the main thoroughfare," said Mary Tod Winchester, former president of the West River Improvement Association, which appealed the license. Woodfield's "is going through a small residential area."

Bassford, who owns Annapolis Seafood Markets, bought the former Woodfield Ice House oyster-shucking and packing plant, and two other restaurants in Galesville in 2002, a major gesture in the South County village whose roots go back 350 years.

He paid nearly $3 million for the businesses and said at the time that he wanted to make Galesville a tourist destination by improving the Topside Inn and Steamboat Landing restaurants, and reinventing Woodfield's as a crab house. Woodfield's family has operated a seafood market at the site since 1917.

Woodfield, 61, who has worked full time at the market for 40 years, said he sold his family's property to Bassford only because he knew he could stay there and manage a restaurant.

But Bassford's plans sparked suspicions from neighbors, who began protesting the crab-house proposal shortly after permit applications were filed in 2003. The size of the proposed restaurant and its parking lot were different from what Bassford had outlined in a meeting with the association, said Winchester, then-president of the West River Improvement Association.

Association members grew annoyed by Bassford's dismissive attitude to their concerns about traffic, noise and potential mischief by drunken patrons, said Cecelia Petro, current president of the association.

"His attitude was, `I own this and I could do anything I wish,'" she said.

The association, the West River Sailing Club and 18 residents filed suit, claiming that Bassford was a silent partner and had an interest in the liquor license, in violation of the law. He had a liquor license at the Annapolis Seafood Market in Edgewater.

In November 2003, a county Circuit Court judge ruled that the board should have surmised that Bassford - as president of the restaurant's operator, Annapolis Produce - would be financially vested in the liquor license. A divided Court of Special Appeals affirmed the judgment in September 2005. The case was then sent on to the Court of Appeals.

It ruled that the county liquor board had acted properly in granting the license because the residents could not prove that Bassford had a financial stake in the operation of the restaurant.

At the time, it was illegal for a licensee to have financial interest in more than one operation with a liquor license in Anne Arundel County. Although Woodfield had applied to be the license holder, members of the West River Improvement Association testified at a licensing hearing that Bassford was a silent partner in the restaurant and would benefit from the license.

"It may well be that Bassford does, indeed, have a direct or indirect financial interest in one or more other licenses and in the license applied for by Woodfield," Judge J. Wilner wrote. "The problem is that clear and persuasive evidence to that effect was not presented to the Board."

The association tried to admit documents to prove that Bassford had a financial stake, but the liquor board rejected the evidence because of procedural rules, Winchester said. She called the court's decision a sad commentary on a system where a person has to hire an attorney to protest at a public hearing.

"If we had hired an attorney we probably would have prevented a license from being approved," Winchester said.

After staying with the case for three years, the association withdrew from the appeal in April after spending about $10,000 in legal costs, Petro said. The association felt it was time to move on because the law had changed to allow individuals to have financial interest in more than one establishment with a liquor license. The case, however, continued because Woodfield and several opponents stayed attached to it.

Bassford has since sold Steamboat Landing and Topside Inn, and the association has worked successfully with the new owners to handle complaints over noise and parking, Petro said. (Those restaurants are now Thursday's Steak & Crabhouse and the River View.)

Petro said the board would discuss how to work with Bassford and Woodfield if the property is developed into a crab house.

The building had been flooded during Tropical Storm Isabel, and Bassford had finished repairing and renovating much of it into a restaurant and retail area two weeks before it went up in flames in March. The fire, which caused $2 million in damages, was blamed on an electrical problem.

Woodfield is operating his family's seafood market, which buys seafood from watermen and distributes it to restaurants, out of a trailer.

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