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Local organization aims to limit liquor licenses

December 22, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- A local restaurant and bar trade organization wants to limit the number of restaurant liquor licenses based on population, a change the county's liquor board said would deter new restaurants from moving to the county.

Maryland law caps the number of liquor licenses in any Washington County election district at one per 1,000 people, but licenses that allow restaurants to serve wine and beer are exempt from that population-based limit.

The Washington County Restaurant and Beverage Association wants to change state law so that restaurant liquor licenses are subject to the same population limits, and to change that figure from one per 1,000 people to a more restrictive one per 3,500 people, WCRBA Vice President Louis Thomas said.

Most election districts in the county are already "overpopulated" with liquor licenses, so the change would mean very few new restaurants in the county could be granted liquor licenses, Robert L. Everhart, chairman of the Board of License Commissioners for Washington County, known as the liquor board, told the Washington County Commissioners Tuesday.

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As a result, many restaurants would not be interested in operating in the county, which would restrict economic development, liquor board member Charles F. Mades said.

"We'd be telling Olive Garden and several others like that they couldn't come into Washington County," Mades said.

The Washington County Commissioners agreed Tuesday they were unanimously opposed to both proposed changes and decided to send a letter asking the Washington County Delegation to the Maryland General Assembly not to support the changes.

Their opposition means the request is not likely to find support from the delegation because the delegation is only interested in sponsoring legislation supported by the commissioners and the liquor board, delegation chairman Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr. said after the meeting.

Protection against chain restaurants



Thomas, who was not at the commissioners' meeting, said by phone afterward that the association proposed the change to protect existing businesses and the community from an onslaught of national chain restaurants.

"Ask any club manager," said Thomas, who owns The Yellow House, a brew pub near Boonsboro. "We're all competing, unfairly I guess, against chains."

Thomas said the association was not against competition "as much as just trying to protect the community as far as how many places are going to be popping up."

He said the change from one license per 1,000 people to one per 3,500, or even 5,000, would be more appropriate, considering that number includes people younger than 21, as well as assisted-living residents and others who are not likely to frequent bars and liquor stores. The change would bring Washington County in line with other counties, such as Frederick County, Thomas said.

Frederick County's cap limits the number of licenses per 4,000 people in an election district.

Thomas said the change would not limit economic development because the state law includes a clause that allows the liquor board to disregard the population ratio quota when "there is a public need including governmentally sanctioned economic revitalization."

Thomas said establishments that already have liquor licenses would be grandfathered in under the association's proposal, even if that meant an election district had more licenses than were permitted based on its population.

However, Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire said he worried that existing establishments would lose their ability to sell or transfer their liquor licenses if they close or change ownership. Liquor license transfers are an integral part of a business-buying transaction and can be worth as much as $100,000, Aleshire said.

"You're not just changing language, you're changing tangible personal property to a significant number, and I would not be in favor of saying, 'We're taking $100,000 from your business because we made a simple change on a piece of paper.'"

Commissioner James F. Kercheval said he didn't think a desire to limit competition was a good justification for changing the population ratio quotas.

Thomas said the association still planned to meet with the delegation in Annapolis to formally request the changes. He said the association had support from health and anti-drug groups and planned to present letters of support from those groups.

"I think we're looking at the big picture and what's good for the community," he said.

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