SNOW HILL — In an unexpected move, the Worcester County Commission reversed a closed session decision to oppose a change to Berlin’s liquor regulations and will instead unanimously support such an amendment, which would allow a “Class D” liquor license in town limits. With local support secured, state representatives have confirmed that a bill will be introduced in Annapolis.
Cheers! owner Chris Denny has been attempting to gather support for a proposed amendment to state liquor regulations to allow for a Class D beverage licenses in Berlin. After gaining the endorsement of the Town Council in January, Denny’s efforts stumbled when the County Commission voted in closed session earlier this month to oppose any such change.
The decision was criticized by Denny’s attorney, Joe Moore, who was frustrated that the commissioners would vote on the matter behind closed doors. But this week the commission decided to grant Denny a public meeting to discuss the pros and cons of bringing Class D licenses into town.
Moore reminded the commission that Berlin is unique as a community as it is the only one in Worcester that does not have retail liquor off-sale within municipal limits.
“I’m hoping you will consider the circumstance and give the folks in Berlin an opportunity to have the same privileges and rights the other communities in north Worcester County have,” Moore said.
In a letter to Moore and state officials, the County Commissioners opined this month they feel their Department of Liquor Control (DLC) flagship store Shore Spirits, which is located on Route 50 two miles from downtown Berlin, more than covers Berlin’s need for liquor retail. However, Commission President Bud Church admitted Tuesday that he agrees with Moore and the Town Council that Berlin deserves to have off-sale liquor service within town limits.
“Whether it makes a lot of money or not a lot of money, Berlin, in my opinion, should have their own facility,” Church said, “whether it’s a Cheers! or some other place. I would hope that my fellow commissioners would see it that way also.”
But the commission had other concerns beyond Berlin’s level of coverage. If the county decided to support Denny’s attempt to change liquor laws at the state level, Commissioner Louise Gulyas wondered if it would be “opening a can of worms.” She pointed out that Cheers! would probably not be the only business hoping to get a Class D license, which would allow the lucrative private off-sale of liquor.
“Do you feel that this is going to open up a can of worms?” she asked Moore. “That once this store gets a Class D license that the other community store on Route 113 will also want a Class D license and they are outside of Berlin.”
Moore admitted that other businesses would be free to apply for Class D licenses but explained that any business that wants to upgrade their license will need to go before the Board of License Commissioners (BLC) to state their case. The BLC would have the final say in whether or not a business should upgrade an existing or obtain a new liquor license and would base the decision on a number of factors such as how well served the area already is.
“The obligation is to show that it’s reasonably necessary for the convenience of the public,” said Moore.
Berlin’s population, about 4,500, also will play a factor into whether the area is saturated by liquor stores, as the county fears.
“You have a very limited town population anyway,” said Sonny Bloxom, county attorney, “so, as I said before, I don’t see proliferation of liquor stores.”
The town will be able to self-limit, agreed Moore, on top of all of the protection offered by having each case go before the BLC.
One other point made by Moore is that the addition of private liquor retail in Berlin should pose little harm to the DLC’s margins. The private stores will almost certainly rely on the county for their wholesale purchases even after this year’s Sunset Provision frees up retailers to purchase directly from wholesalers. It’s unlikely that any Class D stores in Berlin will be large enough to buy direct, according to Moore.
“I think that points to the fact that these stores would still need the ability to buy from us,” agreed Commissioner Jim Bunting.
Bunting made a motion that the commissioners join the Mayor and Council of Berlin in supporting Denny’s effort. Bunting alluded to the commission’s closed session vote earlier this month to oppose Denny, framing their public vote this week as a second chance.
“We make decisions, sometimes we don’t make the right ones, and we have an opportunity to correct that,” Bunting said.
The commission voted unanimously to support a change to Berlin’s liquor regulations. With the town and county on board, Denny’s effort will be taken up in Annapolis by State Senator Jim Mathias (D-38B).
“I’d heard of the County Commissioners’ decision to revisit the issue today and was very pleased,” said Mathias Tuesday. “I was moving in that direction. I’m already having the bill drafted as we speak. We’re looking to work to accomplish this. I really appreciate the commissioners, the representatives and the Mayor and Council all working together to get this matter resolved and now it’s up to us to get it to happen.”