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Opposition to a liquor store slated to open in August near Westlake High School dominated the Charles County commissioners’ monthly public forum Tuesday.

Twenty incredulous Waldorf and White Plains residents came to protest the location of Cheers liquor store, which will be in a shopping center on Middletown Road near its intersection with Smallwood Drive and within easy walking distance of both the high school and a nearby day care center.

Under current rules, liquor stores cannot be within 500 feet of a school. Cheers will be 506 feet from Westlake.

Westlake Principal Chrystal Benson was among those who spoke against a liquor store “next door” to the school.

“Each day, over 1,500 students and 150 staff members trust me to keep them safe and make decisions in their best interest,” Benson said. “Allowing a liquor store to be placed 506 feet … from Westlake High School is not a decision that is in the best interest of our students, staff and community.”

Benson said she was disappointed to find that liquor stores are only required to notify residents and post a sign at the front of the store if they are located within 500 feet of a school.

“I don’t read the paper to see who applied for a liquor license, and I don’t travel construction sites looking for the next new liquor store,” she said. “Although the letter of the law was followed by the liquor board, the spirit of the law was not.”

Acknowledging that the store’s owners appeared to have followed the proper procedures in applying for the license, several residents instead seemed irked that the law allows for a liquor store so close to a school and that the amount of public notice required is easily overlooked.

“Who thought this was a good idea, and why are they going to put a liquor store near a high school and a day care center?” White Plains resident Charles Radford asked the commissioners. “The kids want to get the liquor, and you’re putting this right next to Westlake? You know what’s going to happen. You’re opening the door for trouble, and that school’s already got enough problems as it is. It was a bad idea; it was not thoughtfully, in my opinion, thought through.”

Commissioners’ Vice President Reuben B. Collins II (D) reminded the audience that the liquor board alone awards liquor licenses, and that he and his colleagues are not involved in the process.

In a follow-up interview, Collins said the residents’ comments were “legitimate” and “on point.”

“The unfortunate thing is, the more appropriate forum would have been the hearing for that actual application,” he said. “I’m pretty certain that would have impacted the decision that was made by the [liquor] board.”

Collins said he first learned of the liquor board’s decision from Benson the day after it was made.

“So, it was literally a situation where this occurred under everyone’s radar,” he said, adding that he wants to look into requiring additional public notice in the future if a liquor store is proposed to go near a school or other public facility serving children.

“It’s a tough one because it is legal, what was approved,” Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) said in a follow-up interview. “However, I’m not sure I would agree that it makes sense.”

Robinson said he had conferred with the county’s attorney’s office and been told there was little that could be done regarding Cheers. He said the issue will likely be “100 percent” of the discussion when the liquor board comes before the commissioners during their July 10 meeting.

“If this liquor store does open, I’m sure it will be under the microscope more than any other in the county,” Robinson said. “I honestly wish I could be more encouraging, [but] 500 feet is the rule, and it’s 506 feet, so it is legal.”

Both Collins and Robinson suggested that the commissioners could explore passing legislation extending the distance liquor stores must be from schools.

In a follow-up interview, Commissioner Debra M. Davis (D) said she was interested in requiring a larger radius around proposed liquor stores in which homes must be notified.

“We heard about it the day before that people were coming in to talk about this. So, we didn’t have much notice on this either, but it sounds like it was legally sound,” she said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for discussion because how many liquor licenses are still available in the county and why? What do we envision for our development district moving forward?”

Commissioner Bobby Rucci (D) did not return a call seeking comment. Commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) was not present at the forum.

The Board of License Commissioners approved the store’s liquor license at its May 9 meeting. Each board member expressed concerns over the store’s proximity to the school, but found it fell within the current rules.

“I’m still very concerned about it, as to the proximity of the school,” board member Burkey Boggs told the store’s owners, Waldorf resident Ajit Singh Dhaliwal and his son, Aman Singh Dhaliwal. “I just want to warn you if this license is granted to be very, very diligent in checking IDs.”

“We will be very careful about that,” said Ajit Singh Dhaliwal, who said he and his son have completed Techniques of Alcohol Management training offered by National Hospitality Institute and intend to have their employees receive TAM certification, as well. He said he also intends to prominently display in the store every day the minimum birthday required to purchase alcohol.

“I just want to remind you, valid ID or not, you have the right to refuse anyone’s service,” board member Wayne Magoon said. “So, if you don’t like what’s going on around you, or if you suspect there’s someone underage waiting to receive that, you have the right to refuse, and I would hope you would exercise that right.”

“Because you are going to be tested. You are right there. They will come every five minutes in droves. I expect that,” board Chairwoman Pamela Smith said.

“Since your business will be located close to the school, there will be quite a few people hanging around or loitering,” board member William Young said. “You should be aware of that. Do not let that happen to create a nuisance in the area, also.”

“They’re going to have fake IDs and everything. Trust me, they’re kids,” board member Thomasina Coates said.

Ajit Singh Dhaliwal said he intends to check every customer’s ID when the store first opens.

“You really should get into the habit of checking everyone. I don’t care if they’re 80, check it,” Smith said.

Representing the owners, attorney John Mudd told the liquor board that his clients intend to open the store Aug. 1, after making some improvements that could cost between $50,000 and $75,000.

“I think they will be responsive to the needs of the public, accommodate the public in a lawful manner. I believe that they have done their due diligence,” Mudd said. “This is a significant economic enterprise undertaking by them, and they understand that, and they are going to treat this, it’s they’re money that they’re investing and they want to safeguard their investment, and the best way to do that is to operate the premises in a lawful manner and in an accommodating manner, and I believe they intend to do that.”

Benson brought up the liquor board’s concerns during her comments at Tuesday’s forum.

“How could they know that and state it publicly but still vote in favor of this liquor store going next to a high school?” Benson asked.

jnewman@somdnews.com