ELKTON — Owners of The Wood, a bar on Fletchwood Road near the state line, will be watching the mail for a decision from the Cecil County Board of License Commissioners following a show cause hearing held Wednesday morning.
Operated by Ann Brown and George Kelley in a lease management agreement with the property owner, Shirley Brown,(no relation), The Wood is under scrutiny for the crowd it attracts and the problems those crowds create, according to investigators for the liquor board and the Cecil County Sheriff's Office.
Kelley and Ann Brown insist the issues, including parking and public safety, are not on the property and -- as such -- should not be blamed on the operators.
Speaking on behalf of law enforcement, Sgt. Shawn Mahan, commander of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Cecil County Sheriff's Office, said deputies have been called to the establishment 21 times since June.
"It's mostly loud music," Mahan said of those calls for service, which also included large numbers of cars parking along the road, on county property and in the West Creek Shoppes shopping center next door. "But their business practices resulted in a homicide."
In the early morning hours on August 20 a Georgia man was shot and later died at Union Hospital. The shooting took place in the shopping center parking lot. That case remains under investigation and no arrests have been made according to CCSO spokesman Lt. Michael Holmes.
Kelley said The Wood wasn't open when that shooting occurred. He remembered it was a Wednesday night and not much was happening.
"It was a dead night. We was (sic) closed," Kelley said. "Our security staff called 911 and we assisted the investigators as much as we could."
Management of The Wood changed in February, and Ann Brown assured the board then that the problems seen at the business would disappear under her and Kelley's guidance.
“We know we can do better,” Brown told the board in February. “We are very selective of who we will allow in our establishment.”
However she said Wednesday that they are not responsible for what happens in the adjoining parking lots and along Fletchwood Road.
"The homicide victim was not a patron. Neither was the shooters," she said. "I don't feel it's fair of Sgt. Mahan to be blaming us."
Scott Aro, an investigator for the liquor board, suggested the loud noises could be abated by the addition of an air lock, a second set of heavy doors, to muffle the sound.
"You can't hold a conversation from 100 yards away," Aro said. "And it's extra loud when the doors are open."
He also suggested that the speakers be moved away from the doors.
A video showing the size of the crowds during the summer months was played as part of the hearing, with Earl Bradford, director, explaining that viewers would see a fist fight erupt. Long lines of cars could be seen along the street and large gatherings outside the bar. Ann Brown said once capacity restrictions in neighboring Delaware and Pennsylvania were lifted much of that crowd returned to bars closer to home. However she added she did beef up security.
To their credit, Mahan did say the security team hired by The Wood is very proactive.
"They do pat down suspicious people," he said. One particular pat down resulted in an arrest and the discovery of a gun on the suspect and drugs in the suspect's car.
"They locked doors and kept people inside," he said of the Halloween incident. "But what I find disturbing is they did not call 911 to report shots fired."
While he did hear the Halloween night gunfire, Kelley told the hearing he did not call 911 because there was no gunfire on the bar property. No one was injured but several vehicles -- including a camping trailer across the street -- were damaged.
Shirley Brown took issue with the parking, telling the board that the addition of a jersey wall in front of the county wastewater plant that abuts the property not only removed those parking spaces for customers but also removed one access point to their lot and makes it harder for large trucks making deliveries.
"My husband said we were grandfathered in to use that driveway. For 40 years we've been using that driveway," Shirley Brown said. "Now trucks have to back out onto the road."
Steve Miller, liquor board chair, suggested Brown produce written proof of the right-of-way.
It was Mahan who called Cecil County Public Works and inquired about that right-of-way, which resulted in county roads installing the barriers. He also contacted Pettinaro, the company which owns the shopping center about the use of their parking lot. Although Kelley said he had verbal permission, Mahan's conversation resulted in a written cease and desist order from Pettinaro in September, meaning the parking lot was off limits to The Wood and its customers. He also notified Maryland State Highway Administration about the parking along the state road, to which SHA erected "no parking" signs.
"I'm willing to work with you but I am obligated to protect public safety," Mahan said. "Once the no parking signs went up we advised Maryland State Police they can take action."
Kelley stated he felt The Wood was being targeted.
"In a conversation I had with Sgt. Mahan he made the assertion that he would do everything he could to put us out of business," Kelley said.
Mahan vehemently disagreed.
"I don't go around threatening people," the sergeant said. "There are consequences to the choices you make."
Miller told Ann Brown, Kelley and Shirley Brown to look for a letter in the mail telling them what decision had been made.