Following a recent rise in crime in downtown Silver Spring and across Montgomery County, a residential association in downtown Silver Spring wants the county to impose tighter restrictions on bars and hookah lounges. 

Crime in the county has spiked in the last couple of years, with 35 homicides recorded in 2021, the most in three decades. Also last year, there were spikes in carjackings, kidnappings and other crimes.  

Community leaders have raised concern over an increase in gun violence in Silver Spring, particularly incidents Oct. 3 and 16, when more than 50 shots were fired and 45 shell casings were recovered, respectively, according to Montgomery County police.

Additionally, there was a fatal stabbing near the intersection of Fenton Street and Ellsworth Drive in December, and in January, a teen was injured in a drive-by shooting while recording a music video. 

Nearby Silver Spring residents are urging the county to put more restrictions on businesses, hoping it would cut down on crime.

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

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The county also plans to increase the number of cameras in the downtown area, 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 Feb. 24, the safety committee of the Lofts 24 Condominium Association on Fenton Street wrote to Elrich, all nine County Council members, Police Chief Marcus Jones and others with their concerns about the rise in violence in Silver Spring.

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

“These businesses have been allowed to operate with little oversight to ensure that businesses are operating according to regulations and only minimal penalties when citations are issued,” the letter stated. 

The letter, which contains more than 600 petition signatures, calls for changes that include: 

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  • Restricting the hours of operation for hookah lounges, as has been done in other cities
  • Adopting land-use policies that limit the number of bars and hookah lounges in mixed-use communities
  • Increasing police presence on streets and installing more cameras
  • Making sure inspections of businesses are conducted and imposing penalties for violations of county regulations

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

“We are a mixed-use community. And we have been a very peaceful, copacetic integration of businesses and residents, until I would say last summer, when the gun violence began,” she said. 

Elrich said in a news briefing last week that the county recently sent inspectors to late-night businesses and issued fines for violating the county’s liquor laws.  

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He said he might look at legislation that limits hours of operation for hookah lounges, bars and similar businesses, to curb situations like when people walk into a bar with their own liquor and start pouring shots for friends and peers.

“I know this is gonna be … a big issue for some people. But I do not think it is worthwhile having places open after the drinking hours,” Elrich said. “ … It’s very hard for the county, for example, to enforce whether somebody is bringing alcohol into a facility because they’re not supposed to have alcohol.”

County Council Member Tom Hucker, whose district includes Silver Spring, said in an interview that there needs to be multiple solutions to the issues outlined in the petition.  

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Hucker said those include hiring more police officers to fill vacancies for the county police’s Third District, keeping more of those officers in the patrol division versus specialized positions, doing more investigative work in getting guns off the streets, and hiring Alcohol Beverage Services employees to enforce current liquor laws. 

There is nothing inherently dangerous about a late-night business, Hucker said — Panera Bread baking bread for the next morning, for instance. But county officials need to use their current tools to help curb the problem in Silver Spring.  

“I’m open to additional solutions, but I’m in general belief that we should enforce the laws that we currently have on our books,” Hucker said.  

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Jane Redicker, the president of the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce, told Bethesda Beat that the chamber had a public safety summit in December and discussed concerns about businesses that operate 24/7. 

Redicker said the chamber has asked the county to put together an interdepartmental task force made up of police and representatives from other county departments such as Health and Human Services and Alcohol Beverage Services to look at the trends in downtown Silver Spring. 

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

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“We just want them for security. So, they’ll be placed in areas where there’s not enough good lighting and where there’s been high crime,” she said.  

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

Pascale said that although no residents in the building have been injured, gunfire has struck the building. Last summer, a bullet went through the exterior concrete and two interior walls, and lodged in someone’s bathroom wall, she said.

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

Particularly concerning is the number of people loitering in the streets into the early morning hours after frequenting bars or hookah lounges, Pascale said. 

“We’ve had residents trying to go to the gym at 5:30 [a.m.] before work and feeling unsafe being in the street because of the amount of drunk, high men hanging out in the street, some of them with weapons,” she said.

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Pascale said residents in her building have been kept awake at night from the sound of gunfire. 

“If you’re sleeping in your bed, there’s really nothing you can do when you find yourself at risk by the environment around you,” she said.

Last year, county leaders put in place a crime suppression task force that increased the number of police officers on the street in Silver Spring. Pascale said police have been responsive to their concerns, but there needs to be more than a heavy police presence. 

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“Police aren’t the solution to the problem,” she said. “Police are what you need when somebody’s on the street banging on our door to get into the apartment building. Then we want police. But generally speaking, we want a community that doesn’t need the presence of the police. And that requires the County Council regulating businesses so that they can operate in a mixed-use community without causing these kinds of problems.” 

Pascale said Baltimore has implemented a midnight closing time for hookah lounges. She emphasized that her community is asking for more regulations, not for businesses to be removed.

“We’re here because we like the mix of cultures, the restaurants, the movie theaters, the walkability of it all,” she said.

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Staff writer Steve Bohnel contributed to this story.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com