The dozens of liquor stores located in Baltimore's residential neighborhoods are unquestionably harmful to the city. Besides being a drag on property values and in many cases a contributor to blight, these stores, grandfathered in under older, looser zoning regulations, are a threat to public health. Not only is their presence associated with the medical problems of alcohol abuse but Johns Hopkins researchers have also found a link between these stores and increased violent crime. Baltimore health and planning officials are well justified in making their reduction or elimination a top goal.
However, the owners of the stores have legitimate reason for concern with city officials' plan to use an upcoming rewrite of the zoning code to effectively strip them of their licenses within about two years. These stores are overwhelmingly family proprietorships, and, through a demographic quirk, are almost entirely owned by Korean Americans. These small businessmen and women have invested considerable effort and money in what they had every reason to expect would be a legal business. The city may have the power to render their liquor licenses void from one day to the next, but that doesn't make it right.
The problem is, effectively, the flip side of the one Baltimore County officials have been wrestling with in recent years. There, the focus has been on making liquor licenses available in areas where they can be used as an economic development tool. In Baltimore, the issue is finding a way to get them out of areas where they are a drag on the community. But the issues have their root in the same problem: an antiquated regulatory system that treats liquor licenses as a salable commodity.
That's why city zoning changes that made these liquor stores a non-conforming use more than 40 years ago have had so little impact on reducing their numbers. Business owners come and go, but the licenses live on — and communities become increasingly frustrated.
City Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot says those communities should not be forgotten in this discussion. Liquor store owners may think the process is moving too fast, but for neighborhoods that have been dealing with the ill effects of these businesses for generations, it doesn't feel that way. Dr. Barbot says the liquor store owners knew when they bought their licenses that they were non-conforming uses and should have considered the possibility that the city would take this action.
However, given that the non-conforming uses have been allowed to continue for 42 years, that risk must have seemed remote. The going price for a liquor license for a package goods store in the city ranges from as little as $10,000 in West Baltimore to as much as $60,000 downtown, and that doesn't count the cost of the businesses themselves. City officials say they are willing to help the owners of these stores to convert to another line of business or to move elsewhere, but it is clear that many of them would be out a substantial investment if the city takes this action.
Representatives of the liquor store owners have expressed a willingness to discuss a compromise with the city, and we urge officials to explore the possibility. It is important to the health and well being of many Baltimore neighborhoods to get these liquor stores out of locations where they don't belong and where they contributed to crime and disease. But it is also important that the city be fair to its business owners. City officials should seek a solution that respects both sides of the issue.
In the meantime, though, Baltimore police have the power to padlock businesses that are a public nuisance, and the liquor board can strictly enforce state and local regulations, such as those that are meant to prevent taverns from acting as de facto package stores. They should do so aggressively. The plan to change the zoning code may have the benefit of allowing the city to deal with this problem all at once, but it's likely that officials have the ability under existing law to target many of the stores that cause the most harm.