If a hotly debated Federal Hill beer garden were to open in time for Oktoberfest, it would have to do so without the beer.
By a 2-1 vote Thursday, Baltimore's liquor board declared invalid a liquor license for Crossbar Der Biergarten, saying it expired in 2009 and the owners would not get a "hardship extension."
"The sale of liquor is a privilege, not a right," said board chairman Thomas Ward, who called past extensions of the proposed bar's license "illegal" decisions that the current board had a "duty to correct."
Crossbar was first proposed as an open-air beer garden on Cross Street across from Cross Street Market in Federal Hill. Its owner, Brian McComas, who also owns Ryleigh's Oyster, said he planned to open by October using a transferred license his company believed it had rights to since 2009, and for which the firm paid $1,300 in annual fees to the board.
But liquor board commissioner Dana P. Moore said, "When you looked at the history, it was pretty clear that this license expired."
Rufus Lusk III, chair of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association's liquor advisory committee, said he was "obviously very pleased with the decision." Lusk is among those in Federal Hill have opposed plans for the bar, saying the 300-seat facility would create more problems in the bar-dense neighborhood.
"We welcome a beer garden in Federal Hill with a valid license," Lusk said. "We are concerned about any mega beer garden or restaurant. We think 150 seats is a good size, but 300 is too big."
Peter E. Auchincloss, a Crossbar representative, declined comment on the ruling but said bar owners were evaluating their options. "We'll be talking about it this weekend," he said.
Late Thursday, Crossbar representatives said they now plan to open in January.
The beer garden, which was supposed to replace four vacant storefronts near the Cross Street Market, became a rallying point for residents who were upset about drunken patrons from other bars who, they say, take parking spots, smash flower pots and urinate on homes.
Last year, Crossbar representatives sought unsuccessfully to triple the capacity allowed by their now-invalid liquor license to build the open-air pavilion with picnic tables serving German beers and food. They have argued that they have been unfairly criticized because of much broader resident frustration with unruly patrons of other bars.
"It's a hard-fought case on both sides," Moore said. "I don't think this is the end of it."
She said the decision could have an impact on many city bars that have been granted multiple "hardship extensions" for years despite expired licenses.
Attorney Becky Lundberg Witt of the Community Law Center agreed.
She said the board was influenced by the testimony of former state Sen. George Della, who said a legislative statute prohibits "hardship extensions" unless the request is made within 180 days of a bar's closing.
"I'm thrilled," Witt said of the decision. "We've been saying this forever. I think it has big implications, and I would love to see the board enforce the law."
Ward said he expected the Crossbar representatives to appeal.
"We apply the law as it's stated on the books," Ward said. "I'm sure they are going to appeal it to the Circuit Court of Baltimore City. We'll see what they say."