A bill that would rewrite the city's zoning code passed last week, but not without drama. A series of amendments, proposed by Councilman Nick Mosby and passed by The Land Use and Transportation committee, would have made it virtually impossible to open a bar or liquor store—and probably impossible to keep existing bars and liquor stores open.
By a vote of 11-3, the measures failed. Mosby, Bill Henry, and Mary Pat Clarke voted in favor of them. Robert Curran abstained.
But a campaign against them seemed to get to Mosby, who began his remarks by saying, "I stand before you today utterly disappointed."
"I'm not sure what was learned from the events of April and May of last year," he said.
Clarke said that adding the amendments to the zoning law would give neighborhoods more leverage when dealing with liquor establishments. The amendments would have created a process that liquor store and bar owners could have gone through, she said."
Among the proposed restrictions, bars and liquor stores cannot operate within 300 feet of a school, church, addiction recovery center, university building, another liquor establishment, or residence. So basically everywhere, save for downtown or heavy commercial districts.
Furthermore, bars and liquor stores would not be able to sell individual malt liquor drinks of more than 18 ounces, spirits smaller than 200 milliliters, or flavored alcoholic beverages in anything less than a four-pack.
There would also be rules related to loitering, signage, graffiti, and other "nuisance activities."
While there is language in the amendments that says this only affects new establishments, there is also a passage that says already-existing bars and liquor stores can continue "AS LONG AS THE ESTABLISHMENT COMPLIES WITH THE USE STANDARDS SET FORTH."
According to the Baltimore City Law Department, the amendments are likely illegal. In an email obtained by City Paper, city lawyers asserted that the requirements were onerous and vague and conflicted with state liquor laws and the city's own late night commercial operations law—to say nothing of the U.S. Constitution.
The office of City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young came out against their passage before the vote.
"These amendments, if passed, would have an extreme impact on businesses in the city," said Lester Davis, Young's deputy chief of staff. "And almost nobody knows about it."
Citing everything from the TGI Friday's near Mondawmin Mall to Tamber's in Charles Village, he estimated hundreds, if not thousands, of establishments would be impacted.
He suspected the Land Use and Transportation committee didn't have time to fully digest the new amendments, which were added "at the 11th hour" by Mosby.
"It's putting a huge burden on business, but in an irresponsible way," said Davis, later noting that small businesses are providing the bulk of new jobs.
The Baltimore Good Neighbors Coalition, a group that pulls together members of neighborhood associations from across the city, supported the bill.
Inez Robb, 68, a Sandtown-Winchester resident who is also president of the Fulton Community Association, said there are problem stores in her neighborhood, where people hang outside all day and leave trash on the street. She supported the amendments because they add oversight.
"It's not an enhancement to the community at all," she said. "I like the point of having guidelines."
She says getting a liquor store or bar closed can be a headache, and that neighborhood associations are often at a disadvantage because they cannot hire lawyers and owners can.
Hank and Barbara Valeri, who live in the Towers at Harbor Court building in Otterbein, supported the amendments after seeing loud bar crowds spill over from Federal Hill after last call.
"There is something that needs to be done," said Hank, 80, who serves on his building's association. "The liquor board is good for nothing."
Barbara, 71, who is president of the building association, said that through her work with other members of the Baltimore Good Neighbors Coalition, she learned that "their problems were ours, and in many cases worse."
She and others learned of similar regulations used in the states of Nebraska and California.
"There should be some additional oversight for these people who have the privilege to sell liquor in these communities," she said.
She and her husband are not teetotalers and are fine with people coming to the neighborhoods to enjoy themselves.
"If they come into the neighborhood to have a good time, we'd just like them to leave it intact," she said.
Mosby and Councilman Edward Reisinger, who chairs the Land Use and Transportation committee (and is a former bar owner) did not immediately return requests for comment.
The fight may not be over, however. Clarke hinted that similar the legislation "may rise again when it is better understood."
Additional reporting by Edward Ericson Jr..