Catonsville live music bill is on the right track

Baltimore County Councilman Tom Quirk has proposed a change to county zoning law to allow live musical entertainment in restaurants, bars and other venues located in areas designated as the “commercial cores” of Catonsville and Arbutus. His bill, Bill 44-19, is a good example of how zoning law is best used when it builds upon existing resources in communities to strengthen those communities rather than change them.

In 2002, Catonsville was proclaimed “Music City, Maryland” by the Maryland General Assembly because of its concentration of retail music stores, including the nationally known Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe, opened in 1960. As it happens, “downtown” Catonsville also is home to many excellent restaurants offering a wide variety of types of food. Ironically, what those restaurants in Music City can’t offer under current law is live musical entertainment.

The commercial core of Catonsville along Frederick Road has managed to retain its vitality while similar areas in Baltimore County have struggled. Many of the small retail stores upon which such neighborhood commercial districts depended were forced out of business, first by big box retailers and then by online retailers such as Amazon. To some extent, Catonsville’s cluster of music stores and quality restaurants formed a bulwark against changes in the retail market that sucked the life out of other neighborhood commercial districts.

Bill 44-19 is intended to exploit the natural synergy between food and music, ensuring the competitiveness of Catonsville’s restaurants with the many other dining options in the Baltimore area. And the more people those restaurants bring to Catonsville, the better it is for other retailers including the music stores like the Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe, The Piano Man, and Bill’s Music.

The county also wants to make Catonsville part of the county’s first arts and entertainment district under state law, a designation that makes tax incentives available to qualifying private businesses. Kirby Spencer, vice president of the Baltimore County Arts Guild, told WYPR radio that he hopes the tax incentives encourage the owner of the old Plymouth Wallpaper Company building, now vacant, to turn it into a concert venue. It is that type of aspiration that the county should promote.

I agree with the business community that Bill 44-19 can be improved by removing the requirement that a venue wishing to provide live musical entertainment must first obtain a county permit. That is just additional bureaucracy, and regulations adequate to prevent live entertainment from becoming a neighborhood nuisance can be implemented without issuing permits. The requirement for a permit can be revisited in the future if I’m wrong.

As described above, the bill is a good example of how zoning laws can be fine-tuned to enhance a neighborhood without altering its basic character. “Transformative” changes such as attempted in Towson are more difficult, more controversial, and often far less successful. Too often zoning decisions in Baltimore County have been driven by land developers rather than by residents and small business owners. Bill 44-19 is a welcome change.

[Published as guest commentary by Forward Baltimore on September 27, 2019 but not posted to my blog until December 18, 2019. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

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