What began as a routine Zoning Board hearing last week quickly turned into a diatribe about how the county now wants to punish mobile home park owners by enforcing a law it has neglected for 30 years.
Since 1961, county law has required a 20-foot separation between mobilehomes, but because of interdepartmental squabbling, routinely has enforced only a 15-foot distance.
Former public works employee M. Robert Gemmill, who headed the bureau of inspections, licenses and permits until 1989, said 15 feet was the standard during his 21 years with the department.
Gemmill testified that despite the 20-foot requirement in the zoning law, the public works department enforced no more than a 15-foot separation between mobile homes.
"We had a battle with (the zoning office) whichinitially turned (the 15-foot distance) down," Gemmill said.
But the public works office prevailed over the zoning office, he said, because 15 feet was the minimum distance required by the state fire marshal and because "we had the expertise, they didn't."
Fred Newberger, owner of a 115-unit park in north Laurel and a 72-unit park in Elkridge told the Zoning Board that only once had he been forced to accept the 20-foot requirement.
But Zoning Board chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, wants to leave no doubt that the county's 20-foot requirement is still in effect.
The confusion arose, Gray said, when themobile home zoning regulations were changed in 1985. Before then, the 20-foot requirement was applied to a "building/mobile home." In therevision, the "/mobile home" was dropped.
The result was that some people interpreted the 1985 law to mean that mobile homes were not considered buildings and could be separated by as little as 5 feet, Gray said. He wants the board to retore the "/mobile home" clause.
Gray said the 20-foot separation requirement is necessary to ensure safety against fire hazards and provide mobile home owners with adequate open space. He is supported in his petition by the Department of Planning and Zoning. Several owners of mobile homes also testified in favor of Gray's proposal, saying it would prevent "overcrowding" and "slum conditions."
Owners of the county's older mobile home parks say that because the law has never been enforced, to do it now could shut them down.
Newberger said it recently cost him $6,000 just tochange utility hookups when one of his tenants bought a larger home.
Older park owners say many longtime tenants have mobile homes 8 and 10 feet wide. The standard minimum width for a new mobile home, they say, is 14 feet.
To get 20 feet of space between mobile homes, park owners say they would have to evict tenants, raise rents to makeup for lost revenue and reconfigure their parks at tremendous expense. They say they doubt their remaining tenants could absorb the extraexpense, in which case they would have to shut down.
Gray said park owners would not have to evict existing tenants because owners would be given a waiver from the zoning department allowing them to keepthe current site dimensions as long as their current tenants live there. Distances between homes would be increased to meet the 20-foot requirement only when new people moved in. Even then, if park owners wanted to keep their mobile home sites the size they are now, they could seek variances from the Board of Appeals, Gray said.
Owners said a "grandfathering" waiver is no guarantee. And the time and money needed to obtain a variance is expensive, they said. Instead, they want the law rewritten to include a separate set of standards for parks built in the 1950s and 1960s.
"It's bad enough with 15 feet," saidBurl Binkley, manager of Beechcrest Estates mobile home park in north Laurel. "You can't move just one" home to conform with the 20-foot regulations without moving all the others, he said. "It's like a domino effect."
The zoning regulations deal only with buildings, Binkley said. "But what we're really talking about is moving people around. We're upsetting the lives of people whether we admit it or not -- at a cost of three, four, five thousand dollars per unit just to relocate."
Those costs are for reconnecting utilities -- water, sewer and electricity, he said, and don't include the cost of relocating roads or the income lost by having fewer units. Owners testified that rents for the 1,507 spaces in the county's 14 mobile home parks average$250 to $270 a month.
Binkley predicted that if Gray's petition is accepted, many elderly and fixed-income people would be forced to move elsewhere, and the county's stock of affordable housing would be greatly diminished. Gray has been a leading proponent of low- and moderate-income housing in the county since his 1982 election to the County Council.