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Liquor Issues

by Danielle Sweeney1:55 pmMay 22, 20150

Brandon Scott reviving zoning push against bars and liquor stores

Could cracking down on liquor outlets help solve the “underlying problems” behind the city’s recent unrest?

Above: The city’s zoning code rewrite would potentially reduce the number of non-conforming liquor stores in residential areas of Baltimore.

As Baltimore looks for ways to address the violence, disinvestment and drug addiction seen as underlying factors in the post-Freddie Gray unrest, 2nd district Councilman Brandon M. Scott thinks he has one answer:

He sees an excess of bars and liquor stores as a blight on certain neighborhoods and wants the city to close some down using the zoning strategy officials introduced three years ago.

Scott is referring to City Council bill 12-0152, the city’s omnibus zoning rewrite, “Transform Baltimore,” which includes provisions that would force liquor stores not in compliance with zoning codes to stop selling alcohol.

“Let’s face it, a lot of these places are where illegal activity occurs,” Scott said, speaking with The Brew. “Everything that is wrong with troubled communities happens around these stores.”

Brandon Scott

2nd District Councilman Brandon Scott. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Scott announced his intention on his Facebook page recently, saying closing 100 non-conforming liquor establishments would go a long way toward solvng the city’s “underlying problems.”

“If it’s bad it happens or exists close to these outlets! More importantly does anyone actually think Baltimore wouldn’t be a better place if we had 100 less liquor stores?” he wrote, urging those interested in joining him to get in touch.

The last zoning code rewrite in 1971 was intended to clear liquor stores from residential blocks, but establishments already in operation in these locations were “grandfathered” in. The assumption of zoning officials was that they would shut down over time.

But instead of disappearing through attrition, the stores – many having a monopoly – stayed in business.

About 100 are still in existence, predominantly in the city’s poorest communities and food deserts, Scott said.

Liquor Stores Everywhere

Scott said he grew up in one of those neighborhoods on Coldspring Lane in Park Heights, where such stores are still omnipresent and their negative impact widely felt.

“A liquor store was a forty-five-second walk from my house,” he recalled.

Scott remembers his dad telling him and his brothers to clean up their yard and seeing all the discarded liquor bottles passersby ditched on their property and near their house.

But the liquor bottles were only the half of it.

“Seeing people drunk walking down the street, seeing the violence and hearing the noise, I grew up to associate alcohol with negativity,”Scott said.

That is his personal association, he stressed. “I am not against alcohol. My brothers drink, but I chose not to.”

But when it comes to Baltimore City, he said, such liquor stores are a plague on a lot of communities.

Booze and Prepackaged Diabetes

Scott said in Park Heights today there are blocks with five liquor stores, and not much else, on them.

(Transform Baltimore would also ensure that new liquor stores can’t be established within 300 feet of exiting ones,  except downtown.)

When the zoning rewrite was proposed, liquor store owners complained that they were being unfairly blamed for social problems. Scott said he’s heard comments about how these nonconforming liquor stores should be left alone because they are often the only source of groceries in their neighborhood, and provide a service to their communities.

He mostly doesn’t buy it.

“The overwhelming majority don’t sell real food. They sell what I call prepackaged diabetes – snacks and chips,  not fresh fruits and vegetables and nutritious foods,” he said. “If they want to transition over to become more like a bodega, we can help them do that.”

Scott said he was referring to the Baltimore Development Corporation’s program to help non-conforming liquor stores transition to sustainable business models – such as grocery stores, hardware stores and laundromats.

If the zoning rewrite passes the City Council, nonconforming liquor stores will have two years from when the mayor signs the bill into law to stop selling alcohol.

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