Prince George’s liquor board hearing sets off wide-ranging discussion

Over five hours in what should have been a meeting about routine license and regulation reviews, the Prince George’s liquor board on Tuesday touched on nearly every anxiety coursing through the county of 900,000 residents.

Initially, the hearing had been scheduled to discuss regulatory issues, such as how to manage the county’s 144-store liquor industry. But the routine gave way to a philosophical discourse about one theme: Just what does Prince George’s want to become?

As it gentrifies, the county has become more urban near its Metro stations and at National Harbor. But it also remains a magnet for residents from a wide economic spectrum that includes poor residents, new immigrants and first-time homebuyers, as well as those who live in mega mansions and National Harbor condos.

The agenda for the five-member liquor board called for discussions about signs outside liquor stores, home delivery of alcohol, and a new requirement for a $1,500 licensing fee for evening and late-night entertainment. But the session quickly became an echo chamber of talk about residents’ hopes for the future and their concerns about the present: crime, underage drinking, retaining and attracting businesses, and the fallout from gentrification.

“First and foremost, I want a great-looking Prince George’s County,” Franklin D. Jackson, chairman of the liquor board, said as he sparred with store owners over a recent directive to take down their signs.

For storeowners, aesthetics are fine, but a steady income is also important.

Betty Buck of Buck Distributing in Upper Marlboro, a major liquor distributor in the region, said the absence of outdoor advertising in Prince George’s hurts her customers, the liquor stores.

“Signs matter,” she told the board in an impassioned request to tweak the rules and do its part to retain longtime county businesses.

A proposal to tighten regulations for home delivery of liquor brought out a broad group of opponents. The applicant, Potomac Gourmet Market at National Harbor, did not testify.

Although home delivery of liquor has been legal in Maryland since 1947, the practice has not been closely regulated. About seven liquor stores in the county offer delivery. When the market asked for official permission, the liquor board realized it might need to come up with rules to protect itself from lawsuits and to protect delivery people.

Sam Doyle, who lives near the University of Maryland campus in College Park, urged the board to rethink the proposed rule. “We are opening a can of worms, intended or not,” Doyle said. “Here comes a big delivery to a house full of drunks. . . . I don’t see how my community will benefit. We will be harmed.”

Although the law prohibits deliveries to the campus, it would allow them to the hundreds of off-campus houses and apartments where many students live, as long as someone who is 21, the legal drinking age, places and receives the order. It would also add Bowie State to the forbidden list.

Dorothy Carolyn Lowe, president of the Williamsburg Estates Citizens Association in Upper Marlboro, worried about the potential for crime.

“You know that a pizza delivery guy got killed. I can see all sorts of problems. I think the whole thing needs to be rethought,” she told the panel.

Then there was the matter of the $1,500 fee for establishments offering “entertainment” after 9 p.m. Some in the audience wondered whether this was a county money-making scheme. Speaker after speaker challenged the board to define entertainment: Would a kid’s DJ qualify? Would organizers of a trivia contest night be forced to pay up?

Melvin R. Thompson, a lobbyist for the Maryland restaurant industry, asked the board about karaoke and private parties at restaurants.

Jackson suggested that anyone younger than 21 should be out of a restaurant by 9 p.m. and that the rule was not intended to regulate family-friendly gatherings.

That drew groans from the audience, which included restaurateurs such as Sherry Giovannoni of the Fish Market in Clinton, who said she recently hosted a family celebrating the birthday of an 85-year-old. The festivities, she said, went past 9 p.m., and many guests were younger than 21. Should that be banned, she wondered, or would she be forced to buy a $1,500 permit for such an event?

The board said it would reconvene in the next few weeks and let her know.

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