Waterfront bar owners disputing Wicomico health officials' ruling

By Liz Holland
Posted 6/29/22

A popular waterfront bar didn’t open this summer after the Wicomico County Health Department refused to extend its operating permit past 2021 in spite of pleas from the owners, county elected …

You must be a member to read this story.

Join our family of readers for as little as $5.99 per month and support local, unbiased journalism.


Already a member? Log in to continue.   Otherwise, follow the link below to join.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Waterfront bar owners disputing Wicomico health officials' ruling

John Knorr stands at his bar on the Wicomico River in Whitehaven, which has been closed because of a dispute with Health Department officials.
John Knorr stands at his bar on the Wicomico River in Whitehaven, which has been closed because of a dispute with Health Department officials.
Todd Dudek Photo
Posted

A popular waterfront bar didn’t open this summer after the Wicomico County Health Department refused to extend its operating permit past 2021 in spite of pleas from the owners, county elected officials and the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce.

John Knorr, owner of the Bull Lips Dock Bar, called the move “tone deaf,” as he and other business owners try to get back on their feet following the Covid-19 pandemic.

Knorr, along with his brother Tom, also own the Red Roost crab house next door which is open for business as usual this summer, as well as three other popular local restaurants, Evolution Craft Brewing, Sobo’s and Boonies.

“It’s the worst restaurant environment we’ve ever seen,” he said.

County health officials say they are just following the law.

In 2017, Bull Lips was given a 36-month permit to operate. The temporary license was extended for another year, with the warning it would not be extended again. During that time, Health Department officials said the bar must install a septic system near the Red Roost and run a pipe to Bull Lips.

The bar itself cannot have its own septic system because it sits on top of material dredged from other parts of the Wicomico River.

Knorr said the cost to do what the Health Department wants is “very prohibitive.”

Since it opened, the bar had been operating with two water tanks – one with clean domestic water that was filled at the Red Roost and another that collected “gray” or wastewater that came from three hand-washing stations at the site. The gray water tank was pumped out on a weekly basis along with the contents of some nearby portable toilets, and then hauled to Salisbury’s wastewater treatment plant.

Knorr argues that the water tank system he was using is essentially the same setup used by food trucks which health officials said they would be willing to approve for the site.

“I feel like what we’re doing is more environmentally friendly (than a septic system),” he said.

 Local support

 Bull Lips has gotten support from numerous elected officials, including from state Sen. Addie Eckhardt and Delegate Chris Adams who introduced a bill in the Maryland General Assembly that would have given the bar an exemption from state law.

The bill had the backing of Acting County Administrator John Psota and County Council President John Cannon, but it failed to win support in Annapolis.

Meanwhile, Delegate Carl Anderton said he has been staying on top of the situation and hopes to get a resolution soon.

“My hope is to get it open this summer,” he said.

Salisbury Area Chamber President and CEO Bill Chambers also has been vocal in his support of Bull Lips.

“It’s a mess,” he said. “There’s a couple dozen people not working right now. We’ve got to figure this out.”

The restaurant industry still has not recovered from being closed during Covid and now owners are facing multiple issues including inflation, supply chain problems and staffing.

Chambers said Bull Lips never had any health violations while it was operating, and he argues that hauling gray water from the site is more environmentally sensitive than putting in a new septic drain field.

“This is June and they should be open,” he said.

 Following the law

 While elected officials and business leaders have sided with Knorr, the Wicomico Environmental Trust has come to the defense of Wicomico Health Officer Lori Brewster and her staff.

Brewster “is charged with enforcing the federal and state laws that apply here, the record shows that she has also offered, over the past several years, a series of temporary exceptions where available to keep the business in operation,” the group said in a recent post on its website.

The bill introduced by Eckhardt and Adams was opposed by the Maryland Conference of Local Environmental Health Directors who said the bill’s definition of gray water was “essentially describing sewage holding tanks and cisterns, not a gray water system at all,” according to WET.

The health directors feared it would include water from kitchen sinks and permit the use of cisterns or holding tanks for potable water use. “Each of these provisions, they noted, would be inconsistent with Maryland’s current legal provisions on gray water, which are designed to protect public and environmental health,” WET said in its post.

“WET is concerned that the only apparent reaction thus far has been to seek legislation that could put at risk the health and livelihoods of neighbors who depend on clean water and to attempt to create public pressure on our County Health Officer,” the group said “We submit that this situation needs to be resolved instead in an appropriate manner consistent with all applicable laws protecting public and environment health in the Wicomico River Watershed.”