That's entertainment

Our view : City entertainment law needs study

July 28, 2008

The Baltimore venues where live music and entertainment can be heard run the gamut from a renovated power plant and Irish bars to neighborhood taverns and dance clubs. But if a restaurant in a residential area wants to feature a trio during brunch or a coffeehouse would like to host a poetry slam, city zoning laws stand in the way. City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake would like to promote a lively, more diverse entertainment scene and offer businesses an easy route to provide it. She's got the right idea, but expanding government to accomplish that goal isn't the best approach.

And that is the chief drawback of her proposed bill that would create a one-year entertainment license and a five-member board that would issue it. Ms. Rawlings-Blake modeled her board on San Francisco's entertainment commission. Her proposal includes a new Office of Hospitality Services that would mediate entertainment disputes between citizens and businesses.

But why create another bureaucracy when the city is launching a major review of the zoning code that could incorporate its changing entertainment needs?

Baltimore's zoning code is outdated, and its entertainment provisions reflect that. A variety of zoning designations allow entertainment as a right, and others preclude it. That all-or-nothing aspect of the code forces residents to complain to city agencies for help when entertainment-related noise, parking and safety concerns arise. Businesses that serve liquor also must have their entertainment choices approved by the liquor board.

As city planners overhaul Baltimore's zoning code, they should canvass communities on this often-divisive issue. One option might be to allow live entertainment in several forms but as a conditional use so neighborhoods can weigh in. Until that review is completed, the City Council should allow light entertainment in some areas, but only as approved by the city zoning appeals board. That would ensure residents a voice in decisions on entertainment offerings.

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