Council in Prince George's, Md., acts on quality-of-life bills

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Prince George's County Council voted Tuesday to make it more difficult for check-cashing stores to open and adopted laws to encourage the establishment of wineries and bed-and-breakfast inns, the latest efforts by lawmakers to reshape the county and its image.

Under the check-cashing bill, new stores would have to obtain a special exception through a lengthy approval process, including a public hearing, and they would have to adhere to new rules limiting their hours and mandating security cameras, guards and outdoor lighting. Existing stores would be exempt from the rules unless there was a change in ownership.

It's the latest in a string of restrictive measures affecting businesses such as liquor stores, strip clubs and pawnshops that many residents, rightly or wrongly, associate with crime and blight. Coupled with the two tourism bills, Tuesday's votes highlight an attempt to take the county in a new direction, some officials said.

"We're trying to upgrade the livability of the county and, through that, the image," said council member Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel), who introduced the winery and bed-and-breakfast measures.

This year, the council passed measures that barred pawnshops from selling food, cosmetics and medicine, two years after capping the number of pawnshops allowed. In September, it passed a measure that will eventually confine porn shops to areas zoned for industrial use, eventually moving them out of commercial strip malls and mixed-use centers.

In recent years, the state has enacted laws that forced Prince George's liquor stores to close at midnight instead of 2 a.m. and barred patrons from taking their own liquor to strip clubs.

"I think there's a frustration from our citizens, who keep hearing about potential but seeing no change," said Del. Justin D. Ross (D-Prince George's), who supported the two state measures and applauded the council's recent efforts. "In order to achieve some success, we need to do things differently in the county. . . . For far too long, we allowed our landscape to be peppered with liquor stores and strip clubs and pawnshops, and we know we're better than that."

The check-cashing bill, which was proposed by council member William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville) and passed by a 5 to 4 vote, exempts stores that charge fees of 1.5 percent or less on cashed checks and those that have check cashing as an "incidental" part of their business -- a clause some critics say is too vague and will exempt many stores.

Since the bill was first proposed, it was softened somewhat by removing a ban on ATMs and compromising on business hours, but industry representatives and many patrons strongly opposed it.

Patrons said they need the stores because they are unable to open bank accounts. Store owners said that the bill singles them out unfairly and that there is no statistical proof that the businesses attract robberies and other crimes, as county officials allege.

County police offered anecdotal evidence of related crime, but they said they don't keep statistics on street crime associated with the stores.

Neil Goldstein, chairman of the board of the Maryland Association of Financial Service Centers, said the measure, coupled with state regulations, places unfair and confusing constraints on the stores. "They came up with an idea that seems simple on its surface," Golstein said of the County Council. "It really is a terrible piece of legislation."

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