One Man's Cars Are Zoning Official's Junk

Unregistered Autos Classified As Junkyards

June 23, 1991|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff writer

Keeping an unregistered car on your property in Carroll County couldget you charged as an illegal junkyard operator.

Despite losing arecent Circuit Court case against a South Carroll couple charged with violating the county's zoning ordinance, zoning officials continue to enforce a 1978 law classifying unregistered cars as junkyards.

"Untagged vehicles not in a garage are in violation of the law," said J. Michael Evans, director of the Department of Permits and Regulations. "That is the law. We can cite it and force the property owners to remove those vehicles."

That is exactly what county officials tried to do last fall when they notified Peggy and Irvin Gordon that the three unregistered cars on their 5-acre Eldersburg property constituted an illegal junkyard.

They weren't the first to be cited under the law: Of the 1,250 zoning complaints investigated by the county last year, 278 were for junkyard violations.

As a result of thejunkyard violations, about 550 unregistered cars were removed from properties around the county.

But while the Gordons were not the first, they were the only ones to take the county to court, arguing that the zoning law illegally superseded state law and that the county'snotification techniques were unconstitutional.

It is the state's Motor Vehicle Code, the Gordons argued, that regulates the registration of cars.

In late February, Circuit Judge Francis M. Arnold declared the county's zoning ordinance was legal, that the state's Motor Vehicle Code did not supersede county law and that the county was notacting unconstitutionally.

However, Arnold ruled that the way thecounty notified the Gordons -- telling them they were in violation of the law but not telling them how they were violating the law -- wasin error. Arnold ordered the county to quit pursuing the Gordons on the original complaint.

"He told us that fundamental fairness requires that you be given notice of what the zoning violation is," Judith Stainbrook, the Gordons' Westminster attorney, said.

The Gordonswill not be pursued for the three unregistered cars found last fall,Stainbrook said. But the county could, she said, go out and re-notify them -- two unregistered cars remain on the Gordons' property -- this time telling them exactly what the violation is.

Stainbrook said the ruling is not sufficient to force zoning officials to change how they notify all property owners of violations -- but it does force them to do so in the case involving the Gordons.

The County Attorney's Office said there were no plans to appeal the decision.

County Attorney Charles W. "Chuck" Thompson Jr. would not comment on the case.

Gordon said he isn't satisfied by the ruling. He wanted the court to find Carroll's zoning regulations unconstitutional, saying that they were never passed through legislative action and that the section pertaining to junkyards is superseded by the Motor Vehicle Code.

"The court victory was a hollow victory," he said. "I have superbig problems with the Carroll County government and its zoning laws."

The zoning laws, however, are here to stay, county officials say. Even with the recent memo from Commissioner President Donald I. Dell telling zoning enforcement officers to stop seeking out violations, Carroll's junkyard ordinance will remain intact.

Keeping an unregistered car on private property could result in fines of up to $100 a day, with no maximum cap. At that rate, had the Gordons lost their court case, their violation would have cost them at least $12,000.

County officials insist that the junkyard ordinance is more than just aesthetic enforcement.

Abandoned vehicles can, in some instances, pose a health hazard, they said.

"In and of themselves, the cars donot constitute a health hazard," said Charles Zeleski, Carroll's assistant director of environmental health. "It is the fluids or gases in them that can cause problems."

While Zeleski's department can donothing directly about abandoned or unregistered cars, it routinely refers complaints to the county's zoning enforcement office.

Carroll's zoning laws have been in effect since the 1960s. The part of thelaw declaring unregistered automobiles "junkyards" was added in 1978.

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