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Cormorant Inn asks for liquor license

Kevin Karel, owner of Cormorant Inn & Suites, knew he was in for rough sledding Tuesday when he asked the Becker County Board for an on-sale liquor license.

The only openly supportive commissioner was Bob Bristlin. Others, including Harry Salminen and Barry Nelson, had a number of questions they wanted answered about past zoning disputes and legal action concerning the Cormorant Inn.

Karel was expecting trouble and attended the board meeting with his attorney, Carl Malmstrom of Detroit Lakes.

As Board Chairwoman Karen Mulari put it, Karel has a "track record" with the county that left most commissioners wanting further scrutiny of the liquor application.

In 2004, Cormorant Inn & Suites was at the center of a controversy over a modified conditional use permit, and even before then had earned the suspicions of some members of the county planning commission.

Back then, several noted that his establishment had grown far beyond what the developer promised when he first appeared before the commission in 2001, when he applied for a change of zone from agricultural to commercial, and for a conditional use permit for a commercial planned unit development -- a 15-unit motel.

But with the help of friendly county commissioners -- Bristlin, Roger Winter and Dave Seaberg -- the motel grew to include a bar, restaurant and Laundromat, in spite of efforts by the planning commission to rein-in the developer.

"We were snookered, in plain English, and we were snookered by him," Planning Commission Chairman Jim Kovala said at the time.

Then, on June 10, 2004, Cormorant Inn & Suites was cited with a misdemeanor liquor violation for allegedly allowing alcoholic beverages to be consumed on the premises without a license.

The establishment did not have a county license to sell alcohol or set-ups -- in which people bring their own liquor to mix with soda pop or mix purchased on site.

Yet on June 1, 2004, a sheriff's investigator visited the Cormorant Inn & Suites for a meal and asked about ordering a drink. The waitress replied that the business did not have the bar open "yet," but soft drinks were available, according to court records.

While he was there, the investigator noticed a dozen people at a table with a wine bottle and other liquor bottles sitting on it. "It was obvious that the individuals were pouring their own drinks after buying pop from the establishment," court records say.

"Another group of individuals entered the establishment with beer. They asked the waitress if they could sit and watch the Timberwolves game on the big screen television. Three of these individuals also brought in a two liter bottle of pop and a bottle of liquor. The parties were allowed to consume their alcohol in the establishment while watching the big screen TV."

At the time, Karel said he was acting in good faith when he allowed the set-ups.

He said in 2003 he rented a meeting room to a group of people who brought in their own alcohol. The sheriff's department sent someone over and it was decided that as long as the Cormorant Inn wasn't serving or selling alcohol, it was legal -- kind of like people consuming alcohol in their motel rooms, Karel said.

"So I've been letting people bring booze in and buy pop from me -- it's just like someone ordering a Diet Coke with their meal ... If that's illegal, I was misinformed by the Becker County Sheriff's Department."

Maximum penalty for the offense would have been 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, but Malmstrom said Tuesday there was "no adjudication of guilt" in the case.

Karel said an agreement was reached between his attorney and the county attorney's office to essentially waive the charge, provided no liquor-related offenses were committed on his part for a year.

Karel's establishment also showed up last year on the list of delinquent taxes published by the county, but he said those taxes have now been paid.

Regarding the zoning controversies, Karel says his business plans evolved to meet the needs of his customers, and he never set out to circumvent zoning regulations.

He accused Nelson of opposing his business because the commissioner has relatives who own a competing business in Cormorant.

(Nelson abstained when the board voted Tuesday to grant a tobacco license to Karel's establishment.)

Nelson also denied that it was personal.

"It's a combination of many issues," he said. "Late property taxes are a concern, past problems with alcohol are a concern, past zoning issues are a concern. It all adds up to something that should be taken a little more seriously."

Karel said he has dram shop insurance and said the township, sheriff's department and county auditor's office have no problem with his liquor license application and passed it on for approval.

A motion by Bristlin to approve the liquor license was withdrawn before it could die for lack of a second.

"I hope you're looking at this the way I'm looking at this (with a narrow focus on the liquor license application)," Bristlin told the other commissioners. "I hope you're all being careful not to make this a personal matter."

Salminen said he'd like more information prior to a vote.

"My understanding is that this establishment was selling liquor without a liquor license in the form of set-ups," he said. "I have a problem with the way various zoning issues were handled. I have a problem with going along with a liquor license."

The board opted to table the request until the next board meeting to allow County Administrator Brian Berg to investigate and report back to commissioners.