Reining in a neighborhood nuisance

Our view: A new study validates Baltimore's plan to use the zoning code to reduce the number of liquor outlets

April 15, 2013

For years, Baltimore officials felt they could do little more than throw up their hands in frustration over the archipelago of small liquor stores that blight many of the city's poorest neighborhoods. Local residents complain the businesses are magnets for crime whose patrons are unruly and a threat to public safety, while public health officials cite the strong correlation between a range of serious health disorders and the number of liquor stores in a community. The ineffectiveness of the state-controlled city liquor board, as documented in a recent audit, only makes matters worse.

But a study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health validates a new idea city officials have pursued to address the situation. The Hopkins researchers are urging city governments to use zoning codes to enforce limits on the density of liquor stores in communities that are already struggling with high rates of unemployment, poverty and crime. It's an idea officials here are already pursuing through a pending rewrite of the city's decades-old zoning code. The researchers' findings should persuade the City Council to give its blessing to the effort.

The overall aim of the rezoning plan, known as Transform Baltimore, is to promote and enhance the quality of life in the city by making the code more transparent, flexible and better able to reflect current needs. But the code rewrite, the first in four decades, would also phase out nearly 100 liquor stores that have been operating in areas where the zoning would not ordinarily allow it.

Many studies have shown that the density of liquor stores in poor communities is directly related to higher rates of violent crime, homicide, alcohol and drug abuse as well as nuisance offenses of all sorts. It's also associated with higher rates of serious chronic illnesses, such as hypertension and diabetes, and shorter life expectancy. The Hopkins report suggests that limiting the number of such outlets can drastically reduce many of those adverse health outcomes, lower crime rates and improve the quality of life for residents.

The new zoning code was approved by the city planning commission after extensive public hearings over the last four years. It's now before the City Council, which will make further changes and hold another series of public hearings across the city before it confers final approval on the plan. The actual code is a massive, 300-page document that deals with a wide variety of business and economic development issues. The new restrictions on liquor stores are only a small part of what is a laudable effort, but it has gotten an outsized amount of attention from store owners and community activists.

Baltimore has about 1,300 establishments selling alcohol, far more than needed for a city of its size. It would still have too many if the council approves the new zoning code and the 100 non-conforming outlets are eventually closed. But because of the inappropriateness of their locations, many of these small liquor stores are among the worst offenders in terms of attracting crime and blight.

The proposed zoning changes would give them two years to either close up shop or offer a different kind of merchandise, and the city says it's willing to help them convert their businesses or relocate them to another area. That's only fair. The important thing is to approve a plan that finally gives Baltimore the authority it needs to limit the number of liquor stores in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods, and the Hopkins study adds urgency to that much-needed effort.

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