Frustrated by uneven zoning rules that let some bars in Fells Point hire classical guitarists and singers but prohibit live entertainment at other establishments, neighborhood tavern owners begged the City Council to make the code fairer and more consistent.
Their councilman suggested changing Baltimore zoning rules so that many more bars and restaurants could offer live performances as long as communities supported their efforts. But neighbors balked, fearing that bars would blare music and attract throngs of inebriated concert-goers, and the bill died.
That was 1980.
Nearly three decades later, the City Council is embroiled in a similar debate, with President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake pushing zoning legislation to give many more of the city's bars and restaurants permission to offer live entertainment and neighborhood leaders again worried about the consequences.
Rawlings-Blake says her bill would make the city more attractive to visitors.
"The city is fighting for an edge," she said. "One thing that is keeping it back is not having a full complement of night life."
A supporter, Councilman Robert W. Curran, says: "We have to bring our city out of the dark ages."
The idea excites bar and restaurant owners across the city. "There are a lot of good local musicians, and we'd like to have them in a low-key music environment," said Tim Collins, owner of the Vietnamese restaurant Baltimore Pho near Hollins Market, who wants to offer live jazz and folk music but can't because of zoning rules.
Live entertainment includes most acts in which a person puts on some type of show - comedy, poetry readings, music - but not adult entertainment, which is limited to far fewer areas in the city.
Community leaders and residents in areas with high concentrations of night life and housing, such as Southeast Baltimore and Federal Hill, fear that such a change could lead to an unfettered expansion of live, loud music in their midst and worry that the city won't fully punish violations. They are pressing Mayor Sheila Dixon to veto the bill if it passes.
The debate evokes passion from many.
"Live entertainment by its very nature brings more noise, more crowds, more parking problems, more garbage to the neighborhood," argued Upper Fells Point resident Judith R. Brunton in written testimony submitted to the council. "Adding a live entertainment zone would destroy the little bit of stability that we already have."
Of particular concern to many is a quirk of the city's zoning code: Once the city's Board of Municipal & Zoning Appeals allows an establishment to have live entertainment, it can never take back the designation, even if the property changes hands.
"Maybe it is a nice person who wants it the first time, but this is live entertainment, and it runs with the property," Mary Pat Clarke said during a recent council debate in explaining her vote against the bill. "Two or three property owners later, who knows what it would be?"
Clarke predicted that her colleagues on the council would "spend a lot of time at the zoning board" fighting bar owners who abuse live entertainment privileges if the bill becomes law.
The bill squeaked through in mid-July - eight of the 15 council members supported it, six voted no and one abstained. The council must vote on it once more before the legislation is sent to Dixon. The mayor said in a recent interview that she is "waiting to see what will happen" before she decides whether to sign the bill or veto it.
A key factor in her decision, Dixon said, will be companion legislation being drafted by Rawlings-Blake and Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector that would enable the zoning board to remove designations, such as those that allow live entertainment, if property owners repeatedly violate the rules. Other counties in Maryland allow special zoning designations to be rescinded.
"I think that if that bill is introduced and passed, there might be some assurances for the community," Dixon said.
Rawlings-Blake said she has built strong community protections into her bill: Zoning officials would have to seek community input as they decide whether to permit live entertainment, including notifying the City Council. Bar and restaurant owners would have to provide a detailed plan for the live entertainment and could not deviate from it. The zoning board would consider parking, safety and sanitation, and the establishment's proximity to churches and schools before allowing entertainment.
And after receiving the zoning designation, owners would have to obtain a live entertainment license from the state liquor board, which has the authority to revoke such a license.