Beer, Wine License For East Berlin Store Turned Down; Elected Officials Testify Against Request

Beer, Wine License For East Berlin Store Turned Down; Elected Officials Testify Against Request
The Uncle Willie's convenience store east of Route 113 is pictured. Photo by Charlene Sharpe

SNOW HILL – Citing the need to protect the health, safety and welfare of the community, officials voted not to grant a beer and wine license to Uncle Willie’s in Berlin.

On Tuesday, the Worcester County Board of License Commissioners (BLC) voted 3-0 to deny a beer and wine license request from the connections of Uncle Willie’s. The board’s decision came after Berlin Mayor Gee Williams and Councilman Elroy Brittingham said they didn’t want to see the store selling alcohol.

“We fought so hard to clean that corner up,” Brittingham said. “This is not the right location to issue a beer and wine license.”

Attorney Pete Cosby told the board that the store owners were seeking a license to sell beer and wine after operating Uncle Willie’s successfully for seven years.  He acknowledged that a previous license request had been denied but said the community opposition that existed then had lessened.

The store’s manager told the board that regular customers and tourists heading to Assateague often expressed an interest in buying beer at the store. He pointed out that many residents who lived within walking distance of the store didn’t drive and had to pay for transportation if they wanted to go buy alcohol, since they couldn’t purchase it at Uncle Willie’s.

“People have to use an Uber to go and buy a $2 beer,” he said.

Several area residents said they supported the Uncle Willie’s license request. Eugene Baugh, a Flower Street resident, said he thought it’d be safer if Uncle Willie’s sold beer.

“A lot of the people do have to walk across the highway,” he said.

Berlin resident Barbara Purnell said she too supported the request because the store management was good to deal with and supported the community.

Other Berlin residents, several with connections to other local stores that sold beer and wine, said they opposed the license.

“We have plenty of beer and wine stores nearby,” said Ankur Patel, who runs Friendship Exxon.

When Cosby asked Patel if Berlin’s mayor had asked him to come to Tuesday’s hearing, Patel said he had not.

Williams said officials had been working for years to build a safe community.

“You can live anywhere in Berlin safely,” he said. “It doesn’t matter the time of day or night. I think our opposition is because we know how long it’s taken to get here. It wasn’t always that way.”

He said town officials had no problems with the connections of Uncle Willie’s.

“It’s not about them it’s about the location,” he said.

Williams said the store was close to lots of residential housing as well as Henry Park.

“I think that’s highly inappropriate to have carryout alcoholic beverage sales in that proximity to a public park,” he said.

He added that he believed the town had enough businesses selling alcohol already. He also said he’d seen “no measurable change” in how people of the community felt about the application.

“Maybe there’ll be a day in the future this might be fine, but I don’t think that time is now,” the mayor said. “I don’t think it’s in the foreseeable future. I think these folks made a business judgement to make this investment based on the expectation that they’d be able to sell beer and wine to Assateague. What they didn’t know is this is the only beer and wine carryout that’s in a neighborhood.”

Cosby said he’d attempted to discuss the license request with the mayor more than a month in advance of this week’s hearing. When asked why he didn’t return Cosby’s call, Williams said it was because he didn’t work for him but for the residents of the town.

Cosby said his clients had clearly indicated a willingness to work with the community when they’d abandoned a license request a few years ago after learning that most of the community was opposed. Now, however, Cosby said many, including well known residents Gabe Purnell and Phyllis Purnell, no longer opposed the application. Cosby objected to Williams’ assertions he’d canvassed the community and found residents were overwhelmingly against the license request. Cosby pointed out that if there were lots of residents opposed, they weren’t at the hearing.

“Dammit that’s because we’re here,” Williams interjected, before being asked by the BLC attorney to calm down or leave the room.

Cosby said he wouldn’t have submitted an application on behalf of Uncle Willie’s if he thought there was a lot of community opposition.

“I wouldn’t come down here and waste my time, my clients’ time and this board’s time making an application here unless I thought the ground was ripe,” he said.

Cosby added Uncle Willie’s would not be the only establishment selling alcohol in a residential neighborhood, as Cheers was in a residential neighborhood and Burley Oak backed up to a residential neighborhood. He pointed out both of those were also in close proximity to Heron Park.

Brittingham said he and Williams had been asked by the rest of the town council to speak against the Uncle Willie’s application. He said the town had cleaned up that neighborhood and didn’t want to see any negative changes.

“We know what it was like before and we don’t want to see it again…,” he said. “We visualize six packs going from the store to the park.”

BLC member Marty Pusey acknowledged the problems that area of Berlin had experienced in the past. She said she’d been involved first as a probation officer in the 1970s and later as a representative of the Worcester County Health Department.

“I do recall in the ‘90s the drive-by shootings that were happening,” she said. “The community and the town working together have done an outstanding job making that a better place to be.”

BLC member Charles Nichols said he was concerned about traffic in the area, since cars already backed up at the intersection near Uncle Willie’s.

Cosby argued his client had a proven track record at the store and that demand for beer and wine sales was there. He said that unlike the last time Uncle Willie’s applied for a license, there was not a crowd of protestants present.

“I’m hearing from the mayor and from the town council,” he said. “I’m not hearing from the people … There’s not a big crowd of residents here protesting this because they don’t have a problem with it.”

The board voted 3-0 to support a motion by Nichols to deny the license request. He said the board was tasked with considering the impact a license would have on the health, safety and welfare of the community.

“The public need’s being met,” Nichols said.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.