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Charles County’s business community has united in support of a liquor store set to open near Westlake High School, and of the county liquor board for approving the establishment’s license.

In a letter to the Maryland Independent, the Charles County Chamber of Commerce, Business Alliance of Charles County and Southern Maryland Black Chamber of Commerce jointly commended the liquor board “for acknowledging their legal obligation” to approve a liquor license for Cheers, an unfinished liquor store 506 feet from the high school in a new shopping center on Middletown Road, near its intersection with Smallwood Drive.

The location places the store just outside of the required 500-foot range from any school, but within easy walking distance of Westlake and a nearby day care center.

The letter represents the first major display of public support for the store, which thus far had been roundly criticized by Westlake-area residents and local officials.

The outcry was swift and has remained consistent since the liquor board approved the store’s license during a May 9 meeting. Members of the Board of License Commissioners of Charles County have said that they were unaware of any public opposition to the store because nobody testified against it at the approval hearing.

The Westlake Advocates, a citizens group formed in opposition to the store, have said that the required public notice of the hearing was inadequate, and that residents did not become aware of the store until its license already had been approved.

Both the county commissioners and local Annapolis delegation have voiced support for the Westlake Advocates, but other than commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D), most have acknowledged that little legal remedy exists outside of altering current regulations to ensure that a similar scenario does not occur in the future.

Kelly repeatedly has questioned why the liquor board cannot revisit the matter, given that its members have suggested they might have voted against the license had the community testified in opposition. Kelly recently criticized the board for not allowing public comment before granting the store a three-month extension on a deadline for obtaining its license tied to completing work on the store at the board’s Aug. 8 meeting.

Board members and county legal counsel have said it would be illegal to reconsider the license, and that absent testimony or evidence presented against the store at the May hearing, the law required the license be approved.

“Charles County, like any responsible governmental entity, through its regulatory and approval process, has to ensure that businesses that make the effort to follow the law, receive what they are entitled to and what they bargained for when they make that effort,” the letter reads. “Failure to do so would devalue the rule of law, and the individual property rights that are the basis of a free economy. As a County, we cannot hope to attract and retain businesses if those businesses do not have a legitimate expectation that they can reasonably rely upon the County’s well-established rules and regulations.”

The business groups stated that they are “empathetic” to community concerns surrounding the liquor store, and “strongly admonish” the owners to not serve alcohol to minors. The letter also acknowledges the county’s authority to amend its liquor regulations.

“What government cannot do is change the rules at the end of the process to alter the outcome,” the letter concludes. “That would not only violate the rights of these individual owners, but also send a very negative message to any business, large or small, that is considering locating or expanding its operations in Charles County.”

In an email to Charles County Chamber of Commerce President Craig J. Renner, Kelly called the letter “disappointing” and “disrespectful to the parents students and neighbors who are concerned about this issue.”

“This isn’t about changing rules midstream,” Kelly wrote.

“The liquor board should have been more proactive at the beginning. Check the plan — it looks very much like a business or developer pushing the envelope as far as it possibly could with the placement of the liquor store.”

In a response letter, Westlake Advocates organizer and Westlake Village resident Yvonne Jones wrote that the group is merely opposed to the opening of a liquor store within a school zone.

“We appreciate and respect the importance of the legal process for governing our county’s affairs,” Jones wrote. “We are not asking county officials to change the rules for the purpose of altering outcomes,” but to examine whether the approval process allowed the community “a fair chance to be made aware of this applicant’s request.”

“If the answer is even slightly questionable,” Jones concludes, “then we owe it to our children ... to protest this approval and to right this wrong.”

jnewman@somdnews.com