The fate of a proposed liquor store to be located inside the new Columbia Wegmans is past the point of being under debate. It's now almost a saga.
After three and half hours of testimony on Thursday evening, and on May 1, the Howard County Alcoholic Beverage Board has again delayed a decision on whether to grant a license to sell alcohol in a space on the second-floor of the Columbia Wegmans.
In May, the decision was delayed to allow members of the public to testify. On Thursday it was because Christopher O’Donnell was not present to testify. O’Donnell is the 90 percent owner of the proposed store and husband of Colleen Wegman, the president of Wegmans.
After discovering that O’Donnell was out of the country, the board decided to postpone a decision until its next meeting, a date for which was not set.
The decision came after lawyers for local liquor store owners pressed the board about the license application, which they said O’Donnell had not signed.
“You have a 90 percent owner for who all we know is a mythical figure,” said Steve Wise, an attorney for King’s Contrivance Liquors and Glenwood Wine and Spirits.
In Maryland, grocery stores owned by chains generally cannot be granted liquor licenses, although there are some exceptions, such as a Giant on the Eastern Shore that has a grandfathered license.
What makes this situation contentious is that the owners of the liquor store, O’Donnell, and Ellicott City resident Mike Smith, who owns 10 percent, are claiming they’re independent of Wegmans, even though the store is to be located on the second floor of the grocery superstore and O'Donnell's wife is the president and part owner of the grocery company.
Local liquor store owners from around the area were at Thursday’s hearing to of grocery stores into the alcohol market.
“If Howard County issues this license it’s opening the gate for all grocery stores to open liquor stores in their county,” said Shirac Patel, who owns Savage Liquors.
Challenges to the liquor store ranged from questions about whether alcohol would be transported through the main Wegmans to whether the application was filled out properly. But perhaps the most significant challenge centered around a zoning issue.
Chris Alleva, a Columbia resident, testified and provided county documents to the board that the land is zoned for a number of uses, including a grocery store, but not a liquor store.
“Zoning regulations are construed strictly,” said Alleva. “If a use is not specified it is not permitted.”
However, Tom Meachum, Smith's attorney, said it’s not under the liquor board’s purview to weigh in on zoning issues.
Tom Beach, an attorney for Perfect Pour, disagreed. “I believe it kills the application. I believe that because of the zoning of the parcel that the liquor board cannot issue a license for retail sale of liquor at this location.”
Also making an appearance at the hearing was the Columbia Wegmans store manager, Wendy Webster. She said she believed the liquor store should be licensed because it’s independent of the grocery store.
“It’s about one-stop shopping for our customers," she added later. "It’s no different than any other wine shop or grocery store next door.”
As for , the 10 percent owner, he came to the stand to testify, but never got the opportunity. He had testified at the first hearing but was brought down from the stand once the board learned O’Donnell was not present.
“We actually feel it’s important to see the 90 percent owner here,” said board member William Neault.
After the hearing, Smith described O’Donnell as a capable venture capitalist who already owns two other successful liquor stores in other states.
“His vision and mine are identical,” said Smith. “I remain confident we’ll be granted a license.
“All of the people I’ve talked to are strongly in favor of a liquor store being adjacent to the Wegmans,” he added. “In fact, I haven’t found anybody who has said it’s a bad idea. Most of them have somewhat cynically expressed the view that the reason the protesters are here is because they’re afraid of competition.”