- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
An impromptu public forum broke out following a briefing between the Charles County commissioners and the county liquor board Wednesday evening as dozens of Westlake-area residents turned out to continue protesting the imminent opening of a liquor store near Westlake High School.
After having their liquor license approved May 9 by the Board of License Commissioners of Charles County, the owners of Cheers liquor store plan to open next month in a shopping center on Middleton Road near its intersection with Smallwood Drive, within easy walking distance of the high school and a nearby day care center.
Current rules require liquor stores to be more than 500 feet from the closest edge of any school. Cheers will be 506 feet from Westlake.
Twenty residents, including Westlake Principal Chrystal Benson, attended the commissioners’ public forum last month to voice their opposition to the store.
County Attorney Barbara Holtz began Wednesday’s briefing by declaring the liquor board’s decision to grant the liquor license legally sound.
Specifically, she said that the grounds for denying a liquor license under state law include if it is “not necessary for the accommodation of the public” or “will duly disturb the peace” of the neighborhood, and if applicant is unfit or has made any false statements or committed fraud in the application.
Holtz then quoted state law, reading aloud, “If no such findings are made by the board, then the application shall be approved.” No one spoke in opposition to the license at the May 9 hearing.
“Thus, because the board had only evidence in support of the application to consider, it had no choice but to grant the application,” she concluded.
Commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D), who was not at last month’s forum, asked whether any testimony in opposition to the license would have made a difference in the board’s decision.
“It could have at least influenced the outcome,” board member Wayne Magoon said.
He specified that any opposing testimony would have needed to address factors other than the store’s proximity to the school.
“You could come and argue that it’s too close, but the item in the law says 500 [feet], so we’d have to come up with another argument, the other argument perhaps being it doesn’t serve the community well, and that would be a great argument,” Magoon said.
Kelly repeatedly asked whether there were legal means to revisit the application. At board meetings, Kelly is flanked on both sides by attorneys in fellow Commissioners Reuben B. Collins II (D) and Debra M. Davis (D), who along with Holtz maintained that the Cheers application meets legal muster.
Holtz explained that any prospective appellant would have needed to attend the original hearing in May.
Magoon recommended that, while “there was proper notification by all legal standards” in this case, the board and commissioners consider forwarding legislation to the county delegation to the General Assembly that would require greater public notice in the future.
In Charles County, notice of a pending liquor license is required to be published for two weeks prior to its hearing, and also for 20 days in the applicant’s storefront. Insufficient notice has been a common complaint among those opposed to the store.
“I think that the folks who are here tonight are probably most upset about the fact that they didn’t know and they didn’t have a chance [to testify],” Kelly said. “I mean, clearly they care, they’re here.”
Collins and Commissioner Bobby Rucci (D) said that last year, the delegation rejected legislation proposed by the liquor board that would have limited the number of available liquor licenses in the county.
“I think people need to be aware that the liquor board was actually looking at this issue, so it’s not like this is something that they didn’t address,” Collins said.
“We sent it to the delegation, and the delegation turned us down. We wanted to change this last year,” Rucci added.
Magoon noted that there are 19 remaining liquor licenses available in Waldorf alone. County spokeswoman Crystal Hunt said that 38 liquor store licenses already have been granted in Waldorf.
“We may have been able to solve this already and say there’s enough liquor stores in Waldorf,” he said. “We may have been able to do that, but it didn’t get looked at. Let’s throw it up again. Let’s see if we can do something about it.”
Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) told the audience that a public hearing held moments prior to the briefing, in which the commissioners heard only opposition to and thus rejected a proposal that would have permitted food trucks in the county, was an example of “the impact that testimony in opposition has on commissioners and committees.”
“I realize that you did not have the opportunity because of not seeing the notification … but it is important to get involved,” Robinson said. “You need to read the newspaper to read those boring notices that everyone pages over, because that’s where the information is.”
Robinson also asked whether the county should consider requesting an extension of the current 500-foot requirement to 1,500 or even 2,000 feet.
“I caution you only to be careful what you ask for,” Magoon said, noting that Nick’s of Clinton, “one of the most responsible purveyors of alcohol in our county, and perhaps even in our state,” falls within 1,500 feet of Thomas Stone High School.
“We would obviously grandfather in anybody who’s already in existence,” Robinson said.
Barring an unforeseen and unlikely emergency session of the General Assembly, the most that can be done legislatively is sending a bill to summer study so that it’s ready when lawmakers convene in January, Holtz said.
Liquor board Chairwoman Pamela Smith called the 500-foot requirement “middle of the road” compared to other counties. She said the board surveyed other jurisdictions and learned that St. Mary’s County’s requirement is 300 feet while “only two other counties that responded are 1,000 feet.”
“So, we’re not opening them up right next door,” she said, to which several in the audience answered, “Yes, you are.”
Smith said the board gave a “very stern warning” to Cheers’ owners, but admitted that the law governing liquor boards needs some changes.
“We need to fix our rules and our regs, and with this finally coming to a head and there being an issue, now’s the time to fix it,” she said. “Unfortunately, we don’t fix it until we find out it’s broken.”
Liquor board member William B. Young Jr. said that the regulations should be re-examined in order to avoid a similar situation in the future, should someone want to open a liquor store near the new St. Charles High School.
“As a community, we have to determine whether it is within our interests to have a proliferation of liquor stores within our community,” Collins said. “It’s one thing to argue whether or not the law allowed this to occur. Clearly, based on the testimony that’s been put in place up to this point, the applicant did everything that they were supposed to do to get approval of a liquor license.”
Collins pointed out that the store’s owners will have to meet the same criteria if and when they come before the board to get their license renewed next year.
“I would like to think that once they get a license, they have to be just as good next year to get a renewal,” Robinson said.
“But this isn’t really about whether they’re good or bad. This is about, it doesn’t belong there and the people don’t want it there” Kelly said to cheers and applause. “And I just wish we could go back and revisit the notice.”
“The only thing we can do is fix it from here forward, and at renewal time, we welcome everyone to come out and be there to not want it renewed,” Smith said. “That’s the process we have in place right now, and until we fix it, I think we’re legally tied and we are required to go by the rules that are set for us to enforce. We’ve never been told to alleviate or to certainly make up or own rules as we go.”
Board Vice Chairman Burkey Boggs reiterated that the board would take into consideration any opposition at the renewal hearing next year.
Davis thanked the board members for following the letter of the law.
“We don’t ask you to make up the rules, we just ask you to follow them, so thank you for not doing your jobs arbitrarily,” she said.
Davis also thanked the audience members for attending the briefing, and said there’s no reason that the county can’t decide to “give better notice now” in addition to the legal requirement.
“I don’t want you to leave here tonight thinking that there are sides. There are no sides,” she said. “Everybody sitting here in front of me, including my colleagues here, we all want safe schools, safe neighborhoods, we want it all, and we’re going to work together to make this better.”
But Kelly countered, “if we can acknowledge that we could do better, then why is it that we can’t go back now and say we didn’t give enough notice?” again drawing applause.
“An answer to your question, can we go back? I think not,” Holtz said. “Can you go forward, and do more than is required by the law, yes, absolutely.”
“If it can be done, it can be undone,” an audience member chimed in.
Holtz said that the county has photos of the notice placed in the store window and has “reason to believe” it was posted for the entire 20-day period as required.
“No, it wasn’t,” an audience member shot back.
“I feel very, very sad that we have to learn these lessons the hard way, but it sounds like that is the way this is going to play out,” Kelly said. “Not being an attorney, it’s hard to understand why we can’t go back.”
After the meeting, residents huddled with the commissioners and Holtz, discussing whether any options existed.
Bob Guiffre, president of the Hampshire homeowners association, said the community planned to erect a security fence to block Cheers from view, and also encouraged residents to boycott the store in an effort to drive it from the location or out of business altogether.
Kelly said Wednesday that she had requested a closed session for a legal briefing “because I want to be 100 percent sure that we met the proper legal requirements for public notice.”
“The liquor board did its job. … But I’m elected to represent the citizens, and this decision, in my view, there’s no question it’s not consistent with the will of the community.”