A Prince George's County Circuit Court judge has reversed a decision by the county liquor board that imposed special conditions on the renewal of the license of a topless go-go bar in College Park.
After a stormy public hearing in March, the liquor board's three commissioners ordered the Starlight Inn, located on Rte. 1, half a mile north of the University of Maryland, to remove from the building's exterior all references to go-go dancing or topless entertainment, refurbish and recondition the exterior, and make certain that the dancers could not be seen by people outside the bar.
Circuit Court Judge Albert T. Blackwell, in an Aug. 11 opinion, ruled that the board had acted improperly because it did not find that the Starlight had violated any regulations, that the bar's owners had not been told their conduct would affect their license renewal, and that the seven other topless bars in the county were not subjected to the same conditions.
The controversy began after the Rev. Barry Wood collected enough signatures on a petition to challenge the renewal of the Starlight's annual liquor license. The petitioners said that they did not object to the Starlight's selling liquor, but to the topless dancing. During a public hearing on March 31, Wood presented witnesses who complained that the Starlight was a public nuisance and was incompatible with nearby residential neighborhoods.
One person testified that customers using the Starlight's drive-in window to buy carryout food could see the topless dancers, whether they wanted to or not. Wood complained that children passing by could also see the dancers.
During the hearing John Thompson, one of the bar's three owners, volunteered to screen the dancers from outside view. Thompson said yesterday that he had suggested all three of the actions that the board eventually ordered him to take.
"Nobody ordered me to do anything. It was my idea in the first place," Thompson said. Despite Blackwell's ruling, Thompson added, he already has made most of the changes and intends to go through with the rest.
"Thanks to Barry Wood, I do have a parade of little kids coming by," he said. "They never thought to look in the window until after all this publicity."
Wood, who was angered by the liquor board's refusal to prohibit topless dancing, said that Blackwell's decision did not surprise him.
"After the liquor board discounted all our testimony, it is obvious there are a lot of loopholes," he said. "But I certainly haven't quit. The community expressed itself. They don't want that type of establishment, and I don't quit that easily."
William Meyers, the Starlight's attorney, said that his clients had appealed the ruling, not because they objected to its conditions, but because they feared it might set a precedent to give the board authority to place conditions on license renewals. Such a precedent, Meyers said, might permit the liquor board at some future date to force the Starlight to abolish topless dancing entirely as a condition of its license renewal.
Liquor board attorney Salvatore Daniello said that the board needs more flexibility in dealing with topless dancing.
"The court is saying that the right set of rules will have to be applied to everybody in the same way," Daniello said. "The only problem is that in some places there are no objections."
Daniello also said that he is not sure how the board will respond to Blackwell's ruling or what steps it might take. He said that the board will discuss the judge's decision at its next meeting on Aug. 31.