SNOW HILL – The parties involved in the legal dispute over a Pocomoke liquor license are now awaiting a judge’s decision on the matter.
On Wednesday, visiting Circuit Court Judge Broughton M. Earnest heard from attorneys regarding Janki Patel’s appeal of a June decision by the Worcester County Board of License Commissioners (BLC). Patel, who operates Newtown Market in Pocomoke, does not believe the BLC should have granted a liquor license to Kalpesh Patel for Shore Spirits in Pocomoke.
Earnest heard from Janki Patel’s attorney, Hugh Cropper, and Kalpesh Patel’s attorney, Mark Cropper, as well as the attorneys representing the BLC and Worcester County. Earnest did not give his decision Wednesday but said it would be forthcoming.
“I think it probably deserves my written response,” he said.
This spring, as Worcester County worked to eliminate its liquor operations, officials accepted Kalpesh Patel’s bid to buy Shore Spirits. The sale of the store, however, was contingent on his ability to get a liquor license to operate it. So in May, Patel and his attorney, accompanied by Worcester County Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Kelly Shannahan, presented the license request to the BLC. Mark Cropper said his client simply wanted to take over the county store and add beer to its existing wine and liquor inventory.
Hugh Cropper, representing Janki Patel, voiced opposition to the license request. He was accompanied by a number of area residents and business owners. They said residents were able to purchase liquor at nearby Don’s Seafood and that the small town wouldn’t be able to support two stores–Newtown Market and Shore Spirits–with such similar inventory in the same shopping center. Hugh Cropper also acknowledged that client purchased Newtown Market with the intention of eventually adding liquor to its inventory.
A month after the lengthy hearing, the BLC agreed to grant the Shore Spirits license request. Days later, Hugh Cropper appealed the decision.
In front of Earnest this week, Cropper recounted the May hearing and pointed out that those opposed to the license request had included nearby business owners and even the mayor of Pocomoke.
He said the basis for his appeal was the fact that all of the people who’d signed the petition in support of Kalpesh Patel receiving a license had just met him. By signing the petition, he said, they were supposed to be certifying that Patel was a suitable person to hold a liquor license. He argued they weren’t able to do that if they’d only just met him.
He also pointed out that C.D. Hall had signed the petition for Patel but had come to the BLC hearing to oppose the license request.
“This is a legally deficient application,” Cropper said. “It should have never been accepted.”
Earnest pointed out that even if Hall’s signature was discounted, Patel’s application still had more than the 10 signatures required.
Cropper said his appeal was also based on the fact that Patel hadn’t shown that the license was necessary to accommodate public need. He said the only evidence presented that remotely related to public need was Shore Spirits’ sales records.
“During those six years Worcester County had a monopoly on liquor sales,” Cropper said. “If Worcester County has a monopoly people are going to drive wherever they are to get it.”
He went on to argue that Shore Spirits had been granted a beer wine and liquor license despite the fact that the store had never sold beer in the past. He said that to get a beer wine and liquor license the applicant had to prove there was a need for all three. Cropper said Newtown Market already sold beer and accommodated the public in that regard.
Mark Cropper told the judge that it was the petitioner’s burden to show that the BLC decision was against the public interest.
“There’s been no evidence presented that granting this license was in any way against the public interest,” he said.
Earnest asked whether the BLC had any discretion on hours of operation. When Mark Cropper replied the board did not, Earnest asked about BLC member Marty Pusey’s comments regarding her desire to see specific hours of operation at Shore Spirits. He said it sounded as if Pusey had imposed a condition on the license.
“That limitation was not accepted by the majority of the board,” Mark Cropper said. “It was merely a statement by one of three members. There was nothing inappropriate about the vote.”
He said Janki Patel’s opposition to the Shore Spirits license resulted from the fact that her father and brother had bid on the store themselves but hadn’t bid as much as Kalpesh Patel and thus weren’t selected to purchase it.
“Ms. Patel wanted this license and didn’t get it,” he said.
He said she’d even admitted there was a public need for the license during the BLC hearing.
When Earnest asked him about the contention that the supporters of Kalpesh Patel’s application had only just met him, Mark Cropper said the BLC had created the application in question and in doing so acknowledged that the “just met” response was adequate when signers were told to represent how long they’d known the applicant.
Cathi Coates, the attorney representing the BLC, said that Hugh Cropper was misinterpreting the language of the statute in question and ignoring the purpose of the petition of support on the license application. She said that when an individual submitted the application for a license and the accompanying petition, it marked the start of the BLC’s investigation of an individual. She said the petition was not meant to be a bar that would keep someone who was new to the area from obtaining a license.
She said the fact that applications were accompanied by petitions signed by area residents didn’t mean applicants weren’t vetted thoroughly before they received licenses. She said there was nothing to suggest that Kalpesh Patel was unfit to hold a license.
“I would suggest that the board gave this a great deal of consideration and came to the decision that this license should be granted,” she said.
Hugh Cropper stressed that in his years of representing individuals who wanted liquor licenses he’d always taken the application and petition seriously. He pointed out that there was even reference to the dangers of perjury. He said Kalpesh Patel’s petition should have come into question by the board as soon as its members realized one of the signers, Hall, was in opposition to the granting of the license.
“They completely ignored it and swept it under the rug…,” he said. “That’s the real problem with this case, that it was never considered.”