Residents of condos in downtown Silver Spring are pushing for restrictions on bars and hookah lounges

Following a recent spike in crime in downtown Silver Spring and throughout Montgomery County, a downtown Silver Spring housing co-operative is demanding that the county impose tighter restrictions on bars and hookah lounges.

Crime in the county has skyrocketed in recent years, with 35 homicides in 2021, the most in three decades. Last year saw spikes in carjacking, kidnapping and other crimes.

Community leaders have expressed concern about an increase in gun violence, particularly in Silver Spring Incidents Oct 3 & 16when more than 50 shots were fired and 45 shell casings recovered, according to the Montgomery County Police Department.

In addition, in December there was a fatal stabbing near the intersection of Fenton Street and Ellsworth Drive and in January a teenager was injured in a shooting from a passing car while he was recording a music video.

Residents of nearby Silver Spring are urging the county to place more restrictions on businesses in hopes it would reduce crime.

County Executive Marc Elrich was responsive to the group’s request and said he could limit hours for certain businesses, including hookah lounges.

The county also plans to increase the number of cameras downtown, according to the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce.

Representatives from Society Restaurant & Lounge, Zeke Hookah Lounge and Cabana Hookah Lounge could not be reached for comment this week or last week.

On February 24, the Safety Committee of the Lofts 24 Condominium Association on Fenton Street wrote to Elrich, all nine members of the County Council, Police Chief Marcus Jones and others to express their concern at the increase in violence in Silver Spring.

The committee noted in the letter that several crimes committed late at night or early in the morning have been linked to customers in surrounding bars and hookah lounges.

“These companies have been allowed to operate with little oversight to ensure that the companies are operating within regulations and with minimal penalties when subpoenas are issued,” the letter said.

The letter, which contains more than 600 petition signatures, calls for the following changes, among others:

  • Limitation of opening times for shisha lounges, as has happened in other cities
  • Adopt land use policies that limit the number of bars and hookah lounges in mixed-use communities
  • Increase police presence on the streets and install more cameras
  • Ensure inspections of businesses and impose penalties for violations of county regulations

Celine-Marie Pascale, one of the petition’s authors, told Bethesda Beat last week that many residents of Loft 24 have lived there for at least 10 years and are feeling less safe recently.

“We are a mixed-use community. And we were a very peaceful, co-tactical integration of businesses and residents until I would say last summer when gun violence started,” she said.

Elrich said in a news conference last week that the county had recently dispatched inspectors to night shops and issued fines for violating the county’s liquor laws.

He said he could look at laws restricting the opening times of hookah lounges, bars and similar businesses to curb situations where people walk into a bar with their own booze and start pouring shots for friends and colleagues.

“I know this…is going to be a big problem for some people. But I don’t think it’s worth being open after drinking hours,” said Elrich. “…For example, it’s very difficult for the district to enforce whether someone brings alcohol into a facility because they’re not allowed to have alcohol.”

County Council Member Tom Hucker, whose district Silver Spring is part of, said in an interview that there must be multiple solutions to the problems outlined in the petition.

According to Hucker, these include hiring more police officers to fill vacancies in the county police third precinct, keeping more of those officers in the patrol division rather than in specialized positions, doing more investigative work to get guns off the streets, and hiring by alcohol beverage service employees to enforce current alcohol laws.

There’s nothing dangerous about a late-night deal, Hucker said — Panera Bread, for example, bakes bread for the next morning. But county officials must use their current resources to contain the problem in Silver Spring.

“I’m open to other solutions, but I generally think we should enforce the laws that we currently have on our books,” Hucker said.

Jane Redicker, the president of the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce, told Bethesda Beat that the chamber held a public safety summit in December and discussed concerns about businesses operating 24 hours a day.

Redicker said the chamber asked the county to assemble an interdepartmental task force made up of police officers and representatives from other county departments, such as health and human services and alcohol beverage services, to study trends in downtown Silver Spring.

Redicker said there are also plans for the county to install more mobile cameras.

“We only want them for security reasons. So they are placed in areas where there is not enough good lighting and where there has been a high level of crime,” she said.

Carlos Cortes-Vazquez, a Montgomery County police spokesman, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat Thursday in response to questions about the petition that someone would respond on Friday.

Pascale said that although no occupants of the building were injured, gunfire hit the building. Last summer, a bullet went through the exterior concrete and two interior walls and lodged in someone’s bathroom wall, she said.

She said people died from violence within hundreds of yards of the building, she said.

Of particular concern is the number of people loitering on the streets until the wee hours after visiting bars or shisha lounges, Pascale said.

“We’ve had residents trying to get to the gym at 5:30 a.m [a.m.] before work and feel unsafe on the street because of the crowd of drunk senior men hanging out on the street, some of them with guns,” she said.

Pascale said residents of her building were kept awake at night by gunfire.

“If you’re sleeping in your bed, there’s really nothing you can do if you’re in danger from the environment,” she said.

Last year, borough leaders created a crime-fighting task force that increased the number of police officers on the streets of Silver Spring. Pascale said police have responded to their concerns but it takes more than a heavy police presence.

“The police are not the solution to the problem,” she said. “Police is what you need when someone knocks on our door on the street to get into the apartment building. Then we need the police. But in general we want a community that doesn’t need the presence of the police. And that requires the county council to regulate businesses so they can operate in a mixed-use community without creating these types of problems.”

Pascale said Baltimore has implemented a midnight closing time for hookah lounges. She emphasized that her community is asking for more regulation, not the removal of businesses.

“We’re here because we like the mix of cultures, the restaurants, the cinemas, the walking distance to everything,” she said.

Staff writer Steve Bohnel contributed to this story.

Dan Schere can be reached at [email protected]

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