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Closing Time: Baltimore's Battle with Liquor Licenses

A. Currell / Flickr / Creative Commons

First of two parts

Residents of at least 10 Baltimore communities say a proliferation of bars and liquor stores has led to an increase in crime in their neighborhoods and they want the city’s board of liquor license commissioners to do something about it.

But liquor board members say there isn’t much they can do because of state law, which frustrates folks like Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, president of the Matthew Henson Community Association.

Cheatham was relaxing in the shade one recent day after helping to pick up garbage at the Easterwood-Sandtown Park in West Baltimore, where he’s lived all his life.

“This was as a result of the Freddie Grey riots,” says Cheatham. “I kept having nightmares about the fact that our kids have no place to play.”

But there’s a liquor store just up the street from the park and others nearby. And that’s a threat to the kids, he says, pointing to a map with various colored stars that represent locations of liquor stores, open-air drug markets, and homicides. The map shows at least five liquor licenses within two or three blocks of the park, and at least 15 drug markets and murders in the same area in 2015.

“And we’re saying there is an overlap between drugs, liquor, crime, and violence. And where there is that overlap we need to decrease those types of businesses,” says Cheatham.

Cheatham brings the map to liquor board hearings to protest license renewals.

“We need liquor board commissioners to see what sort of impact these liquor licenses are having on our community, and where they can begin to reduce them,” said Cheatham.

But that hasn’t seemed to help. So, now he wants the General Assembly to slap a moratorium on the transfer or sales of liquor stores licenses until crime and violence goes down in his neighborhood.

And Cheatham is not alone in his frustration. Liz Kasameyer , of the Waverly Improvement Association, has been fighting with the liquor board over problems at the nearby Waverly Tavern.

“It’s not the bar’s fault that enforcement isn’t appropriate,” says Liz Kasameyer from the Waverly Improvement Association, just northeast of Sandtown. “Right? We can only bang our heads on a couple bars for so long, and that suggest there is a broken system.”

She lives down the street from Waverly Tavern, once a neighborhood bar that she says has transformed over the years.

“We went from a place that was quiet and orderly to having a place that has gang members selling drugs at all hours of the day and night. Constant noise and chaos out-front. I don’t even like to stop in front of that place at the stop sign because it is frightening,” says Kasameyer. “It is at that point your like ‘ehhh, could a gun fight break out here while I’m sitting with my five-year-old in traffic?’”

Kasameyer has been trying to get the liquor board to revoke the tavern’s and other liquor establishments’ licenses without much success.

Her association and nine other community associations have written to Mayor Catherine Pugh and City Council President Jack Young, complaining that the board has “failed Baltimore communities.”

Their letter charges that the board has failed to set up efficient and effective systems of communications with the police department and that the board fails to use its own powers of enforcement and regulations to improve public health.

“We’re asking for the standards to be clear. The standards to be met,” says Kasameyer. “And for community members to understand how to meet those standards.

But the city council can’t do anything because the liquor board is a state agency.

Council President Jack Young said earlier this summer that residents need to understand that.

But other community associations say they don’t have these problems.

“As of now, I think we have a pretty good relationship with the liquor board,” says Beth Whitmer, president of the Federal Hill Community Association and four year resident of the city.

“They communicate with us pretty frequently, we understand what they’re doing,” says Whitmer. “I think they let us know what is going on. I think we feel free to support or not support a liquor license.”

It’s not as if the city has done nothing. In 2016, the department of planning updated the zoning code to limit the number of liquor licenses in the city. The new regulations, which take effect next June, prohibit taverns and package goods stores in residential neighborhoods. Existing licenses must meet strict standards for how much alcohol they sell for on-premises consumption within two years of the rules going into effect.

Liquor board members declined to be interviewed on the record, but they insisted they aren’t ignoring community complaints. In fact, they created a community liaison position in June to attend community meetings in places like Sandtown-Easterwood and Waverly and listen to people’s concerns.

So far the community liaison visited with 23 community associations.

And they point to board regulations which limit their power to do some of the things community leaders want.

For example, one rule requires licensees to “operate their establishments in such a manner as to avoid disturbing the peace, safety, health, quiet, and to promote the general welfare of the community.”

They say that rule is vague and doesn’t give the board any specific authority related to the welfare of the community.

Board members say community leaders like “Doc” Cheatham and Liz Kasameyer who want to change the operating procedures of the board may have to direct their arguments at the state legislature to grant the board more authority.

Editor's Note: Since this story was reported the Waverly Improvement Association has met with the liquor board’s community liaison and the board has scheduled another hearing on the Waverly Tavern Sept. 13th.

Tomorrow: The effect the reduction of liquor licenses could have on businesses and the communities.