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Mobtown Beat

The Spirit World

Baltimore’s liquor regulators assess this year’s booze-reform efforts in Annapolis

Photo: Alex Fine, License: N/A

Alex Fine


Unlike, say, the U.S. Constitution, Article 2B of the Annotated Code of Maryland—the Free State’s booze law—is a fairly fluid document. It gets amended each year, as legislators descend on Annapolis and try to change it in myriad ways, often succeeding. Baltimore City’s state legislators, of course, are no exception, and the result is an ever-changing legal landscape for those who sell and consume booze in Mobtown.

“Article 2B is so complex,” says Samuel Thornton Daniels Jr., the Baltimore City Liquor License Board’s executive secretary, “and only becoming more so as all of these new changes are put in each year. While this year is not necessarily the most eventful, it does seem like a high-water mark just in terms of the sheer volume of legislation.”

Not all of this year’s bills are particularly noteworthy—tweaking the liquor licensing available at the Silo Point development in Locust Point, say, or cracking down on past-deadline license-renewal applications—but many seek to reconcile the law with what Daniels calls “an ever-changing culture” in the world of spirits. “There needs to be an evolution in the regulation of alcohol,” he explains, “so that it properly accommodates the changing culture without compromising the protections of the rest of us. Things change. We are able to accommodate that in other areas of development, and we need to do so when it comes to alcohol too.”

With that in mind, Daniels and the liquor board’s chair, attorney Stephan Fogleman, sat down recently with City Paper to go over this year’s raft of proposed changes. What follows is their take on the reform package’s significant components currently working their way through the legislature.

• Memorandums of Understanding (House Bill 392) In recent years, liquor licensees have been entering into nonbinding memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with neighboring community groups, laying out what’s expected of each party—no cigarette sales, for instance, or how trash and parking will be handled. This bill would make the MOUs binding, so that licenses subject to MOUs would only be renewed if the licensee has complied with the documents’ terms. “The [liquor board] supports this bill,” Fogleman says. “Communities more than ever are asking licensees to sign MOUs, and licensees don’t have to sign them—but we prefer a reasonably short MOU with good-neighbor terms so that licensees and communities can create their own destiny.”

• Growlers (House Bill 401/Senate Bill 874) Under current law, only brewpubs, where beer is brewed on-site, are permitted to fill “growlers,” the large, sealed containers used for taking home freshly tapped beer. This bill would allow any licensee that has on-premises consumption—other than nonprofit private clubs and the city’s municipal golf courses—to refill growlers. “It’s about consumer choice,” Fogleman says. “As a beer drinker myself,” he adds, “it’s pretty exciting.”

• Extended Hours for Strip Clubs (House Bill 938/Senate Bill 543) Strip clubs that have restaurant licenses would be allowed to stay open until 3 a.m., instead of 2 a.m., if this bill passes (The News Hole, March 15). The House version has been withdrawn, but the Senate version remains alive. Fogleman and Daniels don’t have a problem with the bill—“What difference does it make?” Daniels asks rhetorically—but they sense that, as Daniels puts it, “the industry is divided against itself, so it doesn’t look like it is going to be successful.” Only a handful of strip clubs have restaurant licenses, and thus would benefit, Daniels and Fogleman explain, while another 30 or so don’t, and therefore would not be able to stay open an extra hour.

• Repeal of Registered-Voter Requirement (House Bill 232/Senate Bill 534) The bill would repeal a requirement that the holders of a liquor license include a registered voter. According to Daniels and Fogleman, this bill arose because opponents of a proposed gluten-free restaurant in Charles Village successfully stopped its license from going through because the applicants did not include a registered voter. “That was one technicality to kill a license that really wasn’t fair,” Fogleman explains. “Voter registration is something everyone thinks is good, but it need not be a technical requirement to obtain a license.”

• Casino License (House Bill 962/Senate Bill 883) The long-anticipated slot-machine casino in Baltimore City is going to need liquor licenses, and this bill would create them—one type for the facility itself, and another for the facility’s concessionaires. The licenses will allow alcohol to be sold whenever the casino is operating, raising the possibility—should the casino stay open until the wee hours—of it being the one place in the city where alcohol can still be had after 2 a.m. Daniels is OK with that prospect, saying, “I don’t have a problem if they want to have 26-hour-a-day alcohol sales—what do I care?” The license fee for the facility will be $15,000 a year, with the concessionaires’ licenses going for $5,000 annually.

• Zoo License (House Bill 1319/Senate Bill 975) The Maryland Zoo’s existing liquor license will be killed and replaced by its own class of zoo license under this bill. “All for it,” Daniels says. “They had a six-day license, and with this, they’ll have a seven-day license.”

• Chain Licenses (Senate Bill 762. SB627/HB767) These bills aim to liberalize the liquor-licensing process for chain stores and restaurants by allowing them to own more than one license. Fogleman says that, under existing laws, chains with more than one location in the city have used “creative licensing” by using, for example, employees as license holders at their various establishments, and the reforms would legitimize chains’ ownership of multiple licenses. “It’s a good thing,” Daniels says of the proposed changes, because “it provides opportunities for outlets to more easily become available for communities.”

• Tasting Licenses (Senate Bill 354 and Senate Bill 984) The law does not allow on-premises consumption of alcohol at liquor stores, but exceptions can be made when a store acquires a tasting license, so that customers can sample hooch before they buy it. These bills seek to allow tasting licenses in four tightly defined areas of the city. “We have no problem with that,” Daniels says. “There are people with money who would like to taste stuff that’s only available for off-premises consumption, before they spend $45 or $60 for a bottle of something that they don’t know if they like it yet.”

• Park Heights Liquor-Store Hours (House Bill 263/Senate Bill 363) In 2010, a new law cut three hours from the business day of liquor stores in Northwest Baltimore’s Park Heights Redevelopment Area, so that they were not allowed to open until 9 a.m. instead of 6 a.m. This bill would take another two hours off the other end of their day, making them close at 10 p.m. instead of midnight. “This is not something we take a position on,” Fogleman says, adding that “it’s just another restriction, on top of the restriction that was passed before.” Daniels says he personally thinks the measure is unfair, but, “from an agency point of view, it’s neither here nor there—it’s just another box on the checklist” for inspections.

• False Advertising (Senate Bill 377) The bill would require the liquor board to enforce the prohibition of false advertising by liquor establishments, meaning any “untrue, deceptive, or misleading” advertising, including those broadcast on the internet. “I have no idea how we would enforce that,” Daniels says, “nor do I have any idea how an establishment owner would be responsible for something that’s put on the web, Facebook or something, by someone who is not an agent of theirs. That really is beyond our enforcement capabilities.”

• Churches, Schools, and Landlords in Northwest Baltimore (House Bill 12/Senate Bill 327 and House Bill 13/Senate Bill 328) Both bills pertain to liquor licenses in the 45th Legislative District in Northeast Baltimore, increasing to 500 feet from 300 feet the distance from a church or school in which the sale of booze is prohibited, and making it a misdemeanor crime for a landlord to rent to a liquor-license holder if the landlord knows that doing so would violate the distance requirement involving churches and schools. Daniels and Fogleman explain that the two bills resulted from a situation involving a shopping center that leased to a packaged-goods store and then, months later, also rented to a church. Since the church came second, the existing 300-foot distance requirement was not applicable, and, as Daniels put it, “the church freaked out, but there was nothing we could do. The fault, then, was perceived to be the landlord’s, and this is to prevent a landlord from doing something like that again—and to expand the distance requirement.”

Daniels notes that legislation sometimes crops up due to the strident demands of anti-alcohol crusaders, which he finds overbearing. Nonetheless, whatever becomes law, he’ll enforce. “In matters of alcohol,” Daniels explains, “I would suggest that some of us consider setting aside their dislike of that to accommodate the improvements and recognitions of the tastes of the rest of us. Knee-jerk reaction because something is alcohol I find bothersome, but my obligation is to the law as it stands.”

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