Tempers flare at liquor store zoning hearing

Zoning Board to decide fate of move in the next few weeks

· March 22, 2007, 5:00 am

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At a Philadelphia Zoning Board meeting yesterday, it was the prospect of alcohol that caused emotions to run high.

About 80 West Philadelphia residents, mainly local Muslims affiliated with the Masjid Al-Jamia mosque, filled the zoning hearing to capacity, standing in firm opposition to the relocation of the liquor store on 41st and Market streets to 4237 Walnut St.

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and the owner of the controversial proposed site, Daniel DeRitis, want to close the current liquor store and open a new, expanded store at 42nd and Walnut streets, in what used to be a Rite-Aid.

But members of the local community, especially attendees of the Masjid Al-Jamia, which is located across the street from the proposed site, say it will harm their neighborhood and offend their religion.

The city Zoning Board of Adjustment, after hearing evidence from all parties, ended the session and will announce its decision within the next few weeks.

Ronald Patterson, an attorney for DeRitis, argued for re-zoning the new store's site, saying that the establishment of a liquor store would be merely another element in a commercial corridor consisting of the Makkah Market, the Restaurant School and the beer distributor University City Beverage.

He said that the objections of the mosque and its congregation were purely religious and asked the Zoning Board to vote according to the law rather than moral issues.

Patterson also claimed that most neighborhood residents are in favor of the liquor store's relocation, saying that "never has this area seen so many people vocally supporting" a new development.

In fact, several community members testified in favor of the new store, and Spruce Hill Community Zoning Committee head Barry Grossbach wrote a letter to the Board advocating the move.

On the other side of the heated debate, Fred Schofield, an attorney who represented Makkah Market at the hearing, emphasized the "affront to [Muslims'] religious beliefs" and the proximity of the new liquor store to the Masjid Al-Jamia.

However, the spokesman for the mosque itself, Rayaul Muhammad, based his arguments not on religious differences but instead on the threat to the nearby Penn-Alexander school, the right of local residents to object to changes in their neighborhood and the detrimental effect a liquor store would have on the entire area.

Muhammad said that, under Pennsylvania state law, a liquor store cannot be within 350 feet of a school, and that any application for a liquor store within 300 feet of a place of worship could be opposed.

And while the Penn-Alexander school, located at 42nd and Spruce streets, stands outside the 350-ft. parameter, Muhammad argued that it is close enough to the proposed site that the area's students would still be negatively affected.

Moving the liquor store would bring "a liquor infestation . in the midst of a family-oriented neighborhood," Muhammad said.

"We beseech you . to exercise your moral decency," he implored the zoning board.

Henry Blocker of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, which authorizes alcohol sales in the state, countered that the new store would actually bring increased safety to the area, since the store would have a lit parking lot and extra security.

Muhammad also presented a petition with 890 signatures protesting the move, though Patterson argued that many of the signatures came from outside the area.

Wednesday's hearing was the third for this case, with the other two having been delayed to allow the two sides to negiotiate.

Martin Cabry, director of zoning for Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, said the Liquor Control Board and representatives for the mosque had met a number of times but had not been able to resolve their differences.

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