At the famed Tiki Bar in Southern Maryland, it’s the doctor vs. the drinkers
As the yachts and go-fast boats fill the snug Solomons Island harbor this weekend, hundreds of bikini-clad women and their water-loving men will shuffle across Charles Street to the Tiki Bar, long a Southern Maryland magnet for partyers. High-octane mai tais will flow in the open-air bar, and an easy-breezy steel-drum band will play amid swaying palms, Polynesian wood carvings and piles of imported sand — like a boozy Jimmy Buffett song come to life.
Absent from this Margaritaville tableau will be Ronald J. “Chip” Ross, a 59-year-old emergency-room doctor who lives with his wife, Faith, just beyond the Tiki Bar’s bathrooms and gift shop, in a century-old home with a magnificent Patuxent River view and, he contends, a lousy neighbor.
Ross is officially at war with the hugely popular Tiki Bar, the watering hole that a Calvert County commissioner once credited with putting Solomons on the map. For five years, between shifts at Calvert Memorial Hospital, Ross has relentlessly fought the bar’s owners in Planning Commission meetings, at liquor board hearings and in court, over everything from noise to zoning. Along the way, Ross — who represents himself in the matter of the doctor vs. the drinkers — has fired off enough letters, briefs and other legal filings to fill a boatload of boxes.
“I’m persistent,” he said with a shrug. Others call him obsessed. Or worse.
The increasingly acrimonious feud at the southernmost tip of Calvert County, 60 miles from Washington, has been marked by name-calling, vandalism — somebody splashed yellow paint on Ross’s driveway — and allegations of harassment and physical threats.
On Friday, Patrick Donovan, one of the bar’s owners, was charged in Calvert County District Court with telephone misuse in connection with “numerous harassing phone calls” made to Ross at home last month.
The long-running Solomons soap opera — which the bar claims is scaring away customers — has consumed the idyllic island community. Ross is frequently cast as a buzz kill to the Tiki Bar’s April-to-October bacchanalia.
“I’m not against people having fun,” Ross said. “I just believe in the rule of the law. I’m doing what I think is right.”
Most recently, he tried to get the Tiki Bar’s liquor license revoked, complaining to the Calvert County Board of License Commissioners that the owners did not meet certain legal requirements and that one of them, Mike Theesen, had made false statements on a license application. The board — which along with the Board of County Commissioners has been been sued multiple times by Ross over Tiki-related matters — voted Thursday night not to take any action.
The bar will remain open. The battle will rage on, with three related cases still before the courts — and possibly more coming.
“There’s a story that comes up every day with Dr. Ross,” said Joe Kurley, the bar’s general manager. “People are always asking about it. They want to know what’s the latest. But it’s just the same old, same old — one attack after another.”
Or as Charles Donnelly, the attorney for the bar, put it, “Dr. Ross is like a toothache, and we can’t get it fixed.”
Mardi Gras in Maryland
If you’ve never been to the Tiki Bar, it’s hard to comprehend its popularity among the party-hearty crowd.
Opening weekend, which always begins on the third Friday of April, draws thousands of revelers who make the pilgrimage by boat, by car, by foot and by plane. They come from near and far to sardine themselves onto a three-acre property for a rum-soaked soiree that’s often called Southern Maryland’s Mardi Gras.
“We had at least 15,000 this year,” Kurley said.
The once modest bar was built in 1980 by Solomons old-timer Bunky Hipple, on the front porch of his family’s Island Manor Motel, just across from the marina in the old fishing village where mountains of oyster shells once lined the street. The idea for a Polynesian-themed, open-air bar came from John and Kathy Taylor, who became Hipple’s partners and later the Tiki’s sole owners. The bar served its first drinks on April 26, 1980.
“That day,” John Taylor recalled last week, “we made $43.50.”
The Tiki Bar was doing a booming business by the time Chip and Faith Ross moved to Solomons in 1999. That it shared a back property line with the couple’s new home wasn’t a concern, Ross said.
“It was a nice little 1,500-square-foot neighborhood bar,” he said. “We used to go once or twice a month and order a glass of wine.”
Ross said he got along just fine with the Taylors. The bar noise didn’t bother him.
“We never had a problem,” John Taylor agreed. “He seemed nice enough when we were there.”
But the Taylors cashed out in 2005, selling the property for more than $2.6 million, according to real estate records. The next year, Ross said, the bar’s new owners tried to turn a concrete parking lot behind the bar into a sand-filled courtyard. And thus began the backyard brawl.
“We didn’t have a problem with a 1,500-square-foot bar,” Ross said. “The troubles began when the boys decided to convert their parking lot into a 15,000-square-foot bar. What homeowner wouldn’t have reservations? And by the way, they weren’t zoned for it.”
Ross and the Tiki Bar owners, led by Donovan, began locking horns over site plans, property lines, open-container laws, environmental codes and more. Ross called in dozens of noise complaints, mostly on weekends, when the party goes deep into the night.
He began taking photos of Tiki Bar customers and property. And he studied county and state code carefully after determining that he didn’t want to pay a $200-an-hour attorney.
“I didn’t know anything about the law and zoning before this,” Ross said. “I do now.”
A polarizing fight
The battle has divided the island, and one needn’t look any further than the doctor’s two Patuxent Avenue neighbors for evidence of the split.
On one side are Joanne Ganbin and Sandy Peddicord, who arrived in 1984, 15 years before Ross. They testified on behalf of the Tiki Bar at one of the many hearings held on the matter, and relations with Ross have been chilly ever since, Ganbin said.
“He knows that we are totally against him,” she said. “He has a chip on his shoulder. . . . He’s rubbed people the wrong way.”
On the other side is Ed Bahniuk, who moved in around the same time as Ross and has been vocal in his opposition to the Tiki Bar’s current owners and operations. Bahniuk appreciates Ross and defends his actions.
“He’s the most persistent person I’ve ever met,” Bahniuk said.“Thankfully, he’s had the strong fortitude to go on.”
But the situation, Bahniuk acknowledged, is “polarized.” And often no-holds-barred.
At one point, the Tiki Bar’s owners filed multimillion-dollar suits against Bahniuk, his wife, Mary, and the Rosses, accusing them of making false complaints and interfering with business opportunities. The bar eventually withdrew the suits, which Ross said were filed simply to scare others in Solomons from speaking out. Donnelly, the Tiki Bar attorney, disputed that.
“Most people don’t want to get involved,” said Raymond Lankford, whose family has deep roots on Solomons.
Lankford has been a Tiki Bar fixture for the entirety of its 31-year existence, as both a plumber and a patron. His sister works at the Tiki Bar.
“The Tiki Bar has done nothing but great for Solomons,” Lankford said. “It’s good for the community. There was absolutely nothing going on down here until it opened up. Nothing.”
There’s no shortage of gossip about the key and supporting players in the drama. Just about everybody in Solomons wants to share something juicy about somebody — off the record, of course, and often about Ross and his alleged motives.
‘I have no vendetta’
None of the tidbits are true, Ross said.
“All we want is for the boys to follow the law,” he said. “There’s no ulterior motive. It’s not personal. I have no vendetta or animosity against anyone. It’s just legal. If they go back to their 1,500-square-foot bar and follow the law, we’re gone . . . in the legal sense. That’s all I want.”
Since the dispute began, Ross has lost more decisions than he’s won, by a wide margin. But the fight will continue until he has exhausted his appeals, he said.
The whole thing puzzles Taylor, the former owner.
Ross, he said, “got a bitter flavor in his mouth for some reason. But I will say that he bought his house 20 years after the Tiki Bar opened. It’s like moving next to the airport and then [complaining] about the planes.”
As Ross sat in his dining room one day last week, an F-15 took off from the nearby Patuxent River Naval Air Station. The house shook. The noise of the bar is worse than the roar of a fighter jet?
“It’s more annoying because it’s at night, and it’s continuous,” Ross said.
For years, people have wondered why Ross doesn’t just leave if he objects to the Tiki Bar so much. He already has a second home, in a Florida beach community north of Jacksonville.
“Why should I have to move because of them not following the law?” he asked. “Eventually, we will move. Everybody moves. But it will be at a time of my own choosing.”
The end of the doctor vs. the drinkers would be cause for celebration for Ganbin, the pro-Tiki Bar neighbor.
“I just wish he’d hurry up and go to Florida,” she said, adding, “I’d go down to the Tiki Bar and have my margarita.”
Staff researcher Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.