Booze News: Distilled in Room 215

A blog about the Baltimore City Liquor Board

What happened at the Liquor Board on May 15, 2014.

Written by Becky Witt

Commissioners Smith & Jones were in attendance and began hearings at 1:18pm. Since Former Chairman Fogleman withdrew from the Board to join the Orphans’ Court, Commissioner Smith has been Acting Chairperson.

Applicant Alfredo Vazquez
Business Name El Palacio Latino
Trading As trade name pending
Address 35 N. Potomac Street
Type of License Class “BD7” Beer, Wine & Liquor
Reason for hearing Request to transfer ownership & location from a Class “BD7” BWL license presently located at 105 S. Conkling Street to 35 N. Potomac Street
Hearing notes

The 35 N. Potomac Street case was the only case scheduled for the docket on May 15. There were 19 people present in support of the application to transfer ownership and location of the license; there were 25 people present in opposition. Mr. H. David Leibensperger, President of the Patterson Park Neighborhood Association (PPNA) represented his neighborhood organization; Mr. Kodenski represented the applicant.

The applicant, Mr. Alfredo Vasquez, testified about his experience in the alcoholic beverage industry: he has worked in bars since the late 1970s, and has never had any problems with the Liquor Board. He plans to open at 3pm on weekdays and at noon or 1pm on weekends. Mr. Kodenski submitted nine photographs of the building and a map of the area. Kodenski also submitted a petition of signatures in favor of the transfer of ownership and location. Mr. Leibensperger objected to many of the signatures from addresses outside of the neighborhood. Mr. Kodenski responded that the signatures were from prospective customers, adding “as far as I know, anyone can be a customer.” Commissioner Smith overruled the objection from PPNA and told both sides that the Board would give the appropriate weight to the signatories. Mr. Leibensperger also pointed out that ten of the signatures were in the same handwriting; Mr. Vasquez testified that each signatory signed on his or her own behalf but did not provide any explanation of why the signatures looked the same.

On cross-examination, Mr. Leibensperger asked Mr. Vasquez about his family and his former addresses. Mr. Kodenski objected to PPNA’s questions about Mr. Vasquez’s family members (his nephew and great-nephew), asking, “are we doing a family tree here? Where are we going with this?” Leibensperger asked Mr. Vasquez, “what is the name of the neighborhood [where 35 N. Potomac is located]?” Mr. Vasquez responded, “Baltimore City, Highlandtown area.” Leibensperger asked, “do you know the name of the community group that is opposing [the bar]?” He replied “Patterson Park something.” The attorney asked, “do you know when and where the PPNA meets?” Mr. Vasquez replied, “everywhere.” Under further questioning, Mr. Vasquez did not know the web address of PPNA’s website or the mailing address of the group and could not name any of the activities of the community association. (Mr. Vasquez responded, regarding PPNA’s activities, “do I need to know that?”) He did not know the names of any of the schools in the area. Leibensperger asked, “You said earlier that you would join the community association; how will you do this?” Mr. Vasquez replied, “Somewhere along the line, I would ask somebody how to do this.” Mr. Leibensperger asked, “what is your plan to address the trash outside of the establishment, both in the front and in the alley? After a lot of back and forth, Mr. Vasquez said that he could put a dumpster out there or hire someone to deal with the trash.

Zoning/permiting: Mr. Leibensperger also raised the issue that there had been some unpermitted construction at the building, for which Mr. Vasquez had received citations from the Housing Department. Mr. Vasquez had had to remove a staircase and a roof deck that were constructed without the necessary permits. Leibensperger asked, “were you aware that construction was taking place after hours and on weekends?” Mr. Vasquez said that he was aware. Vasquez testified that he had hired licensed constractors who were bonded and insured, but he didn’t know their names. He hasn’t done anything to deal with the rodent problem in the building, testifying that rodents are everywhere in the city, but that he would call an exterminator if necessary. Mr. Leibensperger summed up, referring to the unpermitted construction, that Mr. Vasquez “started the business by violating the law.”

Crime: Mr. Alfredo Vasquez stated, in response to questioning from the Commissioners, that if people are not on his property, there’s nothing he can do about issues like loitering, prostitution and drug dealing. Commissioner Jones followed up, asking how Mr. Vasquez plans to train his employees to identify and report crime. Mr. Vasquez responded that he will install security cameras. Mr. Leibensperger asked Mr. Vasquez, about his experience working at 105 S. Conkling Street, “tell me what you did at 105 S. Conkling St to help keep the community clean and crime-free?” Mr. Vasquez replied, “nothing.” Mr. Luis Vasquez, Alfredo’s brother and the prospective manager of the bar, testified that there was no drug dealing or prostitution in the area.

The attorney for PPNA then tried to raise the fact that Mr. Vasquez’s great-nephew was stabbed in the heart blocks away from the proposed establishment on May 3, 2014, at 2:00am. Mr. Kodenski objected, and the Board sustained the objection.

Uniqueness: Mr. Vasquez will “cater to the Hispanic community,” which Mr. Kodenski stated would be the bar’s “theme.” Mr. Leibensperger asked whether there was anything unique about this prospective bar, and Mr. Vasquez replied, “no, nothing special.” Commissioner Jones followed up about the uniqueness of services of the bar (one of the factors to be considered under Article 2B section 10-202(a)); Mr. Vasquez responded that he doesn’t know what uniqueness means, but that it will be a family friendly bar. Commissioner Smith asked, “in your business model, what’s the difference between catering to the Hispanic community [versus] to any other member of the community?” Mr. Vasquez replied that there is no difference.

Parking: Alfredo Vasquez testified that parking will not be a concern, because people can walk to his potential establishment. Commissioner Jones followed up on this statement: he pointed out that many of the signatories from the petition, who were supposedly future customers of the establishment, were not from the community, so how will they get there? Mr. Vasquez replied that potential customers mostly live within in a ten-block radius, so they will walk.

Mr. Luis Vasquez, Alfredo’s brother, testified that he will be running the bar at 35 N. Potomac Street. He currently lives in the apartment above the bar. He said that he had tried to contact community groups and had left messages, but they had not returned his calls.

Mr. Leibensperger asked Luis whether he was aware that his son had been arrested and pled guilty on several occasions to criminal offenses including possession and concealment of a deadly weapon and possession and unlawful manufacture of illegal drugs. Luis replied that he was aware of those offenses. In response to questioning, Luis stated that he would let his son enter the establishment as a customer. Mr. Leibensperger asked, “you don’t have any problem with criminals coming into your bar?” Luis replied, “no.” Mr. Kodenski chimed in that “it’s pure speculation that a person who has committed a crime will commit another crime.”

Mr. Kodenski then called his third witness, a community member named Mr. Coston, who lives across the street and is in favor of the transfer of ownership and location. He testified that he did not believe it would have an adverse effect on the block. When asked about the addiction treatment center across the street, Mr. Coston replied that “a man controls his own destiny” and that he doesn’t “think having a bar across the street would make him relapse if he’s strong in his recovery.” Mr. Leibensperger, on cross-examination, asked Mr. Coston about multiple calls to police at Mr. Coston’s address for issues such as drug dealing and domestic disputes. Mr. Coston admitted that the police had recently been called to his home. He didn’t know who was making the calls, stating that “people are really overprotective of their neighborhood, anybody could have called.” Upon questioning, Mr. Coston testified that he has never been to a community association meeting.

Mr. Kodenski submitted a list of names of the nineteen people present in support of the transfer of ownership and location.

Substance abuse recovery center: Reverend William Parks testified regarding his addiction treatment program, Teen Challenge, located at 101 N. Potomac Street, directly across Fairmount Avenue from 35 N. Potomac. Reverend Parks testified that Teen Challenge is a church, because they have Christian meetings three times per week, which are open to the public. He has served in the ministry for forty-four years. There are currently eight or nine students in their inpatient drug treatment program. Reverend Parks testified that the building has been vacant from 2009 until now. If a liquor store or bar opened at 35 N Potomac, he testified that it would adversely affect every student in the program. Every person in the inpatient program that is a drug addict started out by using alcohol. The participants in the program range between the ages of 17 and 60 years old.

Mr. John Mangano, a current participant in the inpatient drug recovery program, testified that he has been at Teen Challenge for two months. He testified that there would be a higher likelihood of the participants reoffending if there were a tavern or bar across the street. He also testified that the potential bar opening has been the only topic of conversation among the participants lately.

Community testimony in opposition: Ms. Njinga Jenkins, who lives halfway down the block from the proposed establishment, testified next in opposition. She told the Board that she has lived in her home for twenty-two years, and previous incarnations of the bar were disruptive to the neighborhood. Children were exposed to alcohol, cursing, and drugs planted in windowsills and mailboxes. Bar patrons broke windows in the nearby church. A man was beaten. When she complained about the bar, patrons broke the windows of her house and car and slashed her car tires. She said that the neighborhood has improved recently (since the bar has been closed), that the police helped get rid of drug dealers. There are sufficient liquor stores nearby to serve the community’s needs; the stores are located in busier business districts, not in the residential districts community. She added that she is an addiction specialist, and that, within a three-block radius, she has five or six clients that have recently given birth to babies with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. She added that “a bar would be detrimental to them.” She asked, “how can someone open up a business without talking to us about what we would like to have there?” She closed by saying that the neighborhood residents are working people, who don’t want the noise of a bar in their community at night.

Mr. Matthew Gonter, Housing Code chair for the PPNA, testified about his reports of housing code violations at 35 N. Potomac Street to the City.

Ms. Carol Robles also testified in opposition to the bar. She lives a block away from the establishment and provides Spanish translation for PPNA. She has spoken with neighbors on her block and at the nearby charter school, and she did not sense any public need or desire for this bar.

Liquor and violence: Dr. Catherine Velopulos, a neighborhood resident and trauma surgeon, testified about the relationship between alcohol and violence. She informed the Board that a huge proportion of trauma in Baltimore hospitals is related to violence. Shootings and stabbings tend to happen around the time that the bars are closing. Most patients who come into the hospital with trauma wounds have over the limit alcohol levels. Having established her education and background, the Board allowed Dr. Velopulos to be considered an expert witness for the purposes of the hearing. (Mr. Kodenski objected.) Dr. Velopulos testified that transitional and mixed-income neighborhoods, like Patterson Park, are at an increased risk for violence when alcohol density increases. She pointed out that 35 N. Potomac is along a heavily traveled route to school for students. She also informed the Board that the Patterson Park neighborhood currently ranks low on healthy neighborhood indicators, such as life expectancy, education, and arrest rates for young people.

Letters: PPNA submitted letters of opposition to the transfer from Councilman James Kraft and from Maryland’s 46th Legislative District delegation. PPNA tried to submit other letters of opposition, which were not dated or time-stamped, and the Board refused to accept them.

Licensee’s former workplace, 105 S. Conkling Street: Pastor Mark Parker, of Breath of Life Lutheran Church, testified that he was familiar with the establishment at 105 S Conkling Street, Mr. Vasquez’s former place of employment and the location from which the license is being transferred. Pastor Parker testified to high levels of loitering and significant drug trafficking. The Highlandtown Community Association has had a long history of interactions with this bar, including many police calls. Baltimore Police Officer Todd Brown, from the Southeast District, testified about the pattern of 911 calls regarding 105 S Conkling Street. He testified that when the business at 105 S. Conkling Street closed, 911 calls decreased.

In closing, Mr. Kodenski argued that the testimony about Luis’s son was unfair, that the community was placing the sins of the son on the father, adding, “he didn’t say that he would come in there to do anything he wants. He didn’t say he was going to work there or own there.” Mr. Kodenski said that it was “outrageous that [PPNA] would talk about [Luis’s son’s] criminal background.” He argued that any negative impact from the prospective bar is “all speculation. It’s how you use it.” He added that he thinks it’s disrespectful when the Board calls the opposition “the community,” since there was at least one neighborhood resident present who was in support of the bar. He added, “You can’t tell people who want to drink that they can’t drink,” stating that it all comes down to “personal responsibility.”

Zoning R-8
Neighborhood Patterson Park
Area demographics BNIA did not have census data for the Patterson Park North and East neighborhood.
Does corp entity exist, in good standing? Yes; no.
Location of entity’s principal office 35 N. Potomac St, Baltimore, MD 21224
Attorney for licensee Mr. Melvin Kodenski
# in support 19
Attorney for community H. David Leibensperger
# of protestants 25
# of inspectors 1 – Inspector Ed Owens
Result of hearing Held sub curia until the next Liquor Board hearing (which will be on June 12, 2014). Due to the volume of testimony and evidence presented, over 3+ hours, the Board decided to wait to issue its decision. Commissioner Smith said that the decision would be given the following week, on May 22, but the Liquor Board is not scheduled to meet again until June 12, 2014.
Vote tally Smith & Jones
Portions of state law cited in decision None
Other reasons given for decision None
Issues raised in audit present in this case or other issues observed

BLLC Rule 2.12 states, in its entirety: “(a) No license shall be issued which will result in a use of premises which violates any zoning or other statutory land use restriction. (b) No license shall be issued and no license shall be transferred into premises having a Non-Conforming use within an area zoned as Residential. This rule shall not prevent renewal, transfer in ownership, or modification of licenses in such premises nor shall this rule prevent the transfer of a license into such premises in which a license is outstanding.”

Rev. Parks testified that the bar has been closed since 2009. If Rev. Parks is correct that the bar has been closed since 2009, the license at 35 N Potomac is also expired under Article 2B section 10-504(d). Under Rule 2.12(b), if the license currently at the address is not valid, because 35 N. Potomac Street is zoned as a residential property (R-8), the 105 S. Conkling St license can not be transferred to the property. In addition, under Zoning Code section 13-407, any nonconforming use (such as a tavern) is lost after two years of discontinuance or abandonment. Therefore, the operation of a bar at this establishment may violate the Zoning Code, which would, in turn, violate Rule 2.12(a). The Commissioners did not raise these issues.

Mr. Alfredo Vasquez is the sole director of El Palacio Latino, Inc. and the sole licensee. However, he testified that he will not be running the bar; rather, his brother, Mr. Luis Vasquez (not a licensee) will be the operator. This practice is in violation of BLLC Rule 3.01, which states: “Every licensee shall be the actual owner and operator of the business conducted on the licensed premises.”

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