Salisbury defends alcohol board control wishes

Salisbury officials and business owners told members of the House Economic Matters Committee that the city needs its own liquor licensing board to help streamline the licensing process and remove obstacles facing local businesses.

The Wicomico County Board of License Commissioners, which currently issues liquor licenses within city limits, is too political and its chairman works in the office of an elected official, Mayor Jake Day said during a bill hearing in Annapolis on Monday.

“This has got to stop,” he said.

The issue came to a head last summer when the city bypassed the county board and got a liquor license for the National Folk Festival from state Comptroller Peter Franchot.

Day has said that after city officials perceived the county’s licensing board was dragging its feet on approving a beer and wine license at last year’s event, the city went to Gov. Larry Hogan and then to Franchot whose office ultimately signed off on the license.

Mike Dunn, President and CEO of the Greater Salisbury Committee, said the city’s proposal has the backing of his organization’s membership as well as that of the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce. Both groups realize the current licensing process has become embroiled in politics, he said.

“Local control is probably the way to go,” Dunn said.

Downtown Salisbury bar owners Alex Scott and Jeremy Norton, who support the city’s effort, said that after giving interviews to a local television station, a county inspector visited both of their businesses the next day.

Norton, who owns Roadie Joe’s, said he gave interviews on two separate occasions. “Both times an inspector arrived,” he said.

Delegate Johnny Mautz, who owns a restaurant in St. Michaels, told Scott and Norton to let him know directly if any further retaliatory actions are taken as a result of their testimony before the committee.

Scott also complained about the county’s antiquated liquor laws that he said are “reminiscent of Prohibition” and stifling business in Salisbury.

Richard Duvall, attorney for the county board, said he was unaware of any complaints about harassment.

“It’s the first I’ve heard of it,” he said. “If that’s true, it should be addressed.”

Duvall and representatives of the Wicomico County Liquor Control Board, which operates the county’s three dispensaries, said the bill as it is written would dismantle the dispensary system.

If that happens, the county would stand to lose revenue from the stores that goes toward paying for essential county services.

Some committee members expressed concern over reports that the city’s request for a National Folk Festival license was greeted with laughter from county board members.

“Do you agree there are problems?” asked Delegate Lily Qi, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Duvall agreed that some provisions under the county’s liquor laws can be a burden to businesses. The Brick Room was required to have 140 seats in order to obtain a Class D license for beer, wine and liquor, but in order to do that, Scott had to knock out a wall and expand into a space next door.

“To me that was overly burdensome,” he said.

The bill, sponsored by Wicomico Delegates Carl Anderton and Sheree Sample-Hughes, will need to win the approval of the Eastern Shore Delegation if it is to advance, said Delegate Dereck Davis, chairman of the Economic Matters Committee. Some delegation members, including Delegate Chris Adams, have expressed opposition to it.

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