Is Wegmans Above the Law in Howard County?

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We know Columbians are excited — even fanatical — about their new Wegmans. But is that irrational popularity enough to bend state law, zoning rules, and the Howard County General Plan to allow the grocery behemoth to sell booze?

Wegmans certainly seems confident that they’ll get a pass from the Alcohol Beverage Hearing Board — confident enough to have already built the second floor liquor store with “shelving in place and separate loading docks.”

So why should they expect to have their license request granted? Well, you see, it’s not that Wegmans wants to sell liquor themselves. No, no, of course not. They just want to rent out space on the second floor to an independently operating store, 90 percent of which happens to be owned by Christopher O’Donnell, husband of Wegmans’ President Colleen Wegman. And even he is really just “a venture capitalist.” Yeah, that’s the ticket. The real man in charge is the 10 percent owner, Ellicott City lawyer Michael Smith. He’s the one who applied for the liquor license. Everything’s totally above board per state law.

As to the location’s M-1 zoning designation (which was expanded to allow food sales, but not alcohol), and inconsistency with Howard County’s soon-to-be-adopted General Plan (which states that such stores should be pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly), I’m assuming the argument goes something like, “Don’t you realize that we are Wegmans?! You will pay for this insolence!”

Though my general feeling is that the ABHB will acquiesce to the megalomaniacal designs of the grocery juggernaut, they haven’t made their decision yet. And most of those who’ve testified have been opposed. Spitefully, it would be nice to see those liquor store shelves stocked with nothing but grenadine, sour mix, and O’Doul’s.



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7 COMMENTS

  1. Why can’t grocery stores sell alcohol in Maryland? They do in just about every state around us? There is no health and safety issue, just the protection of the special interest group of liquor store owners.

    Fix the law and there won’t be an issue. People will have the choice to buy where they want to and there will be real price competition in the beer, wine and liquor business.

    • It’s a protection for small, specialty stores. And it tends to support mom-and-pops against enormous chains. Of course, it depends upon your point of view. Personally, I’d rather keep the law in place. One-stop shopping tends to favor businesses with very deep pockets. One of the ideals of free enterprise is that someone of moderate income could make an honest go of starting a small business. The dominance of chain grocery and department stores impinges on that.

      So I disagree with the idea that it’s automatically fair or right to have fewer restrictions in business. Every decision for either more or less regulation produces winners and losers. There isn’t a neutral choice that’s better for everyone.

      And besides, from the consumer’s point of view, getting beer in grocery stores isn’t always better. I grew up in New York State, where grocery and convenience stores are allowed to sell beer and liquor stores sell wine and liquor. Consequently, it is VERY hard to find good beer in many cities (all the boutique beer stores have to also sell produce). Whereas in Maryland, where only liquor stores sell beer, good beer is pretty easy to come by.

      Of course, I’m sure this proposed Wegmans liquor store would stock nothing but the finest organic blah blah blah blah blah…

    • I guess you could argue that the lack of quality beer in New York is due to the restriction placed on liquor stores and not so much due to allowance for grocery stores. Still, alcohol being sold everywhere would put some liquor stores out of business and consumers would likely be left with less access to good beer.

    • I lived in Ohio for many years and they sell beer and wine in grocery stores without suffering any of the problems you stated. Small liquor stores continue to exist. And they often carry a wine or brand that is not available at the local food store, so you end up going there instead. Or they offer tastings, so you go there instead. Or they offer an education or ambiance to the wine-buying experience, so you go there instead. Let’s be honest here, shall we? The liquor laws in Maryland have been draconian and protective of a subgroup that really requires no protection. Why aren’t we protecting small butcher shops, small hardware stores, small office supply, etc.? This is all about a strong lobbying group maintaining power over the free-market system. Nothing more. To say that selling beer and wine in liquor stores would give “less access to good beer” is, really, a laughable notion.

    • Winelover, I may very well be wrong — after all, I have only my anecdotal experience and some inductive reasoning — but no need to imply I’m not being honest.

      And as I see it, your examples of small butcher shops, hardware stores, and office supply places support my point. Hasn’t customer service and — in some cases — selection suffered as a result of huge chains supplanting local shops in those cases?

  2. Eddie’s and Harris Teeter both have adjoining liquor stores with separate hours. In Chincoteague Va you can buy terrible wine and beer in the grocery store and good stuff down the street at the wine store. Everyone seems happy.

  3. Maryland’s byzantine liquor retail laws are yet another example of the regressive, oppressive, croneyism that permeates the “Free State.” Obtaining a liquor retailing license in MD is similar to obtaining a concealed handgun permit–if you are an honest citizen, you get an interminable run-round, spend mountains of money to “follow the rules” only to be denied 99% of the time.

    But if you are well-connected, you can often find your application on the “fast track” to approval–often with many of the legally-required hurdles brushed aside.

    Don’t get me wrong–I think grocery stores in MD should be allowed to sell beer and wine. The prohibition of alcohol sales in grocery stores only serves to empower the croneyism of the liquor license process, and gives legitimacy to the feigned puritanism and fraudulent progressivism displayed by many of Maryland’s politicos.

    Maryland doesn’t have “governments”–it is loose conglomeration of organized criminal enterprises posing as “officials,” and the good-old-boys network of liquor license processes is just a symptom of a much deeper, and systemic corruption.

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