By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 17, 2007
When Wayne Cooper moved to Charles County in 1984, he recoiled at the prevalence of topless bars, seedy massage parlors and drive-through liquor stores.
Since then, Charles has morphed from a sleepy rural community to a bustling Washington suburb dotted with strip malls, family-style restaurants and coffee shops. One topless bar remains, down from an estimated half-dozen, and a strict certification process for massage therapists has all but eliminated illicit parlors. Now Cooper (D), president of the county board of commissioners, wants the drive-through liquor stores gone, too.
"It's amazing that you can just pull up and buy alcohol as you're sitting in your car," he said. "It certainly portrays a negative image of Charles County. It's really time that we took a stand on this."
But liquor store owners have taken issue with the claim that their businesses are a blight on the county's image. Jim Mills, whose family has operated Jimmie's Cut Rate Liquor on Route 301 in White Plains for 44 years, said his business provides a valuable convenience to county residents.
"We've had a good record of being responsible around here since 1963 and with the drive-in window since 1971," Mills said. "I don't see how [Cooper] can correlate what we do with massage parlors and topless bars and say we're negative for the county."
The move to ban drive-through liquor stores is the latest effort to improve the public face of Charles. A minor-league baseball stadium is scheduled to open in May, and the county government has poured significant funds into developing athletic fields, parks and hiking trails to draw tourists and new residents from more-established suburbs.
"We have some image issues that we need to work on," said Marcia Keeth, the county's director of economic development. "People still drive down the road expecting to see trailer parks and used car lots, and they find a flourishing suburb."
Cooper's proposal would prohibit the issuing of liquor licenses -- new or existing -- to any store operating a drive-through window beginning in 2010. After receiving support from his four colleagues on the board of commissioners this month, the draft resolution will go before the General Assembly during the 2008 session.
At least eight Maryland counties -- including Montgomery, Calvert, St. Mary's, Anne Arundel and Howard -- prohibit liquor stores from opening drive-through windows, but most of the county laws exempt preexisting stores. Virginia and the District prohibit drive-through liquor stores.
"We've come a long way in the last 10 years or so, and you can see how [a drive-through liquor store] would lend itself to the thought process that we're backward," said Charles Sheriff Rex W. Coffey (D), who supports the ban on drive-up windows.
A red-and-blue sign over Jimmie's advertises the drive-through window, where Mills estimates he gets 30 percent of his revenue. On most Friday nights, at least a half-dozen drivers wait to pull up to the window to buy cases of beer, bottles of liquor, soda or lottery tickets.
As he waited in line at Jimmie's to buy a six-pack of Budweiser on a recent Friday night, Jim Roberts said he decided not to park and walk into the store because of the cold weather. Roberts said that losing the drive-through option "wouldn't be any big thing" but that he would miss the convenience.
"This has been here for as long as I can remember, and it's nice for the old folks who have trouble walking, just like it's nice to be able to buy a hamburger without getting out," Roberts said. "I don't think it causes a lot of trouble for the community."
Cooper and Coffey disagreed, saying drive-through liquor stores tacitly condone drinking and driving. No scientific evidence of such a link exists, but activists say drive-through windows send the wrong message. Law enforcement officers added that it is more difficult for merchants to judge whether someone is already drunk through a drive-up window than in a store. State law prevents liquor stores from selling to people who are intoxicated.
"It's a common-sense measure to separate drinking from driving, and the concept of a drive-through does bring those questions to the forefront," said Caroline Cash, executive director of Maryland Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Cash said that a statewide task force on driving under the influence has discussed the potential effects of drive-through liquor stores but that members have not made any formal recommendations. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) convened the panel in May in response to findings that showed the number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities has remained stagnant for the past five years. The District, Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania all have tougher penalties for DUI convictions, the task force found.
Officials in Charles said they are determined to reduce the county's rate of DUI convictions and alcohol-related fatalities, which they say are higher than in counties closer to the District because of the lack of public transportation. The efforts are especially important for the thousands of families who move to Charles each year, Cooper said.
"People expect to be able to drive the roads safely, and we have a responsibility to provide that," he said. "We're telling people not to drink and drive, but we sure are making it convenient."