BERLIN — A push to allow private liquor retail sales in the town of Berlin is facing an uphill battle now that the Worcester County Commission has officially come out in opposition to the measure. The effort may not be dead in the water, however, as it has been endorsed by the Berlin Mayor and Council and remains on the radar of a state senator.
In January, attorney Joe Moore, representing Cheers! owner Chris Denny, visited the Berlin Town Council seeking support for an amendment to Maryland’s state alcoholic beverage provisions to allow the off-site sale of liquor at a private store in town. The council unanimously endorsed the idea, agreeing with Moore’s argument that Berlin has been underserved ever since the county removed their retail liquor distributor from town back in September.
In a letter to County Commission President Bud Church, Mayor Gee Williams outlined the town’s support after allowing the public time to express any concerns or opposition with having a private liquor store in town limits.
“We have received no opposition to this position. The only input received can be summarized as follows: When are you going to fix this?.” wrote Williams, who added the town is currently “without a convenient outlet to purchase carryout liquor to go within town limits” since the county shuttered its store in the Food Lion Shopping Center and moved it to Route 50.
After getting the thumbs up from the council, the expectation was for Moore to take his case to the County Commission to try for a similar endorsement. However, the commission met in closed session last week to discuss Moore’s request and the letter of support from Berlin privately. The commissioners voted to oppose Moore’s attempt to change the provisions at the state level that would allow Class D licenses in Berlin’s town limits. Such a license would be needed for a traditional, privately owned retail liquor store.
“I regret to inform you that the County Commissioners voted to oppose any such legislation … The Commissioners are concerned that expanding the areas where Class ‘D’ Licenses are permitted will result in a proliferation of liquor stores,” wrote Harold Higgins, Chief Administrative Officer, “not only in Berlin but in other areas of the County in the future.”
In his letter to Williams, Moore and local lawmakers, Higgins noted that the county only closed its retail operation in Berlin last year to concentrate on the new flagship store, Shore Spirits, on Route 50, which is about two miles outside of town limits. Despite the short drive, the commission argued that Shore Spirits more than meets the needs of Berlin residents.
“The County Commissioners believe that this new location not only provides convenient access to the residents of Berlin and the surrounding communities, but will also be convenient to the Worcester County visitors traveling to the beach,” Higgins wrote. “We made the decision to combine our West Ocean City and Berlin locations to a more central location just outside Berlin for the convenience of the residents and visitors of Worcester County.”
Moore unconditionally disagreed. In a response to the commission’s decision to oppose any change, Moore wrote a letter to Commission President Bud Church reiterating his belief that Shore Spirits does not fairly cover Berlin’s reasonable expectations for liquor sales.
Moore made the same argument that he gave in January to the Berlin council, pointing out that with the county pulling their retail operation in September has left a gap that has not existed in town for decades, especially for residents who would want to walk or bike to the store. Though Shore Spirits is only two miles outside of town, Moore noted that it is located on the county’s busiest highway, which often becomes deadlocked during the summer season.
“I believe I can state, with some certainty, that since the repeal of prohibition, the Town of Berlin and its citizens have enjoyed the convenience of being able to purchase alcoholic beverages,” he wrote in his original letter to the council, “without traveling beyond the Town of Berlin Corporate limits.”
In addition to his doubts about the validity of the county’s position, Moore was critical of their decision to make the vote in closed session instead of allowing him to make a public presentation.
“As stated previously, the purpose of this letter is to express my disappointment that the Commissioners would take such action and maintain a formal public position with respect to such an issue without granting at least a cursory Hearing to either myself, representing a citizen wishing to have the Legislation changed or, indeed, the Mayor and Council of Berlin which publically requested the Commissioners consideration of such Legislation,” Moore said.
Having the discussion out in the open would have been “a minor consideration,” according to Moore, and a fair one that would have allowed for reasonable discussion on the pros and cons of amending state provisions to allow Class D licenses in Berlin.
“Such a minor consideration would, it seems to me, have been beneficial if for no other reason than to air the benefits of such legislative enactment to the wholesale sales by the Worcester County Department of Liquor Control to a businessman who would be required to make a substantive investment in order to simply have the right to apply to the Board of License Commissioners, for such a license,” wrote Moore. “There is a requirement under the regulations applicable to Worcester County that no private off-sale Class ‘D’ liquor license can be issued without having the investment made and the location on the premises of not less than 25 seats available for on-site consumption.”
By opposing a legislative change, which the Worcester County Licensed Beverage Association supports, Moore argued that the commissioners are acting counter to the official goals of their Department of Liquor Control (DLC) which are, according to its website, preserving local jobs, providing service to small business in Worcester County and protecting and preserving revenue to the county and towns.
“It is my considered opinion that your recent action detrimentally affects all of those goals,” he wrote.
With the commission opposed to any legislative change, Moore acknowledged in his letter that it is unlikely that such legislation will be introduced in Annapolis this year.
However, State Senator Jim Mathias (D-38B) confirmed that may not be the case and said this week that he is still following the issue. Additionally, Delegate Mike McDermott will also be asked to consider introducing the legislation as well, in light of the county’s stated opposition.
“I’m paying close attention to this,” he said. “I’m sensitive to the need in Berlin and I would like to hear more in terms of finding a workable solution. We’ll look and see about drawing up a bill, and we’ll look to make sure there aren’t other consequences. We’ve been able to accomplish a lot, and I think we can accomplish this.”
It would have been better if the town of Berlin and the county saw eye-to-eye on the issue, Mathias admitted, but the commission’s opposition is not necessarily the last nail in the coffin.
“Sure, I’d prefer everybody to be in harmony on this,” he said. “Do I think a liquor store in Berlin would hurt the county? No. I’m just paying close attention to what else can happen.”