Sidewalk gorilla endangered by zoning code

September 01, 1992|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

On Ritchie Highway in Brooklyn Park, the days of the great ape may be numbered.

For six years the gorilla has reigned at Ritchie Car Wash, waving customers in, standing as a distinct landmark amid the bewildering forest of signs that is Ritchie Highway.

But now comes the county zoning officer with a zoological beef: That's no gorilla, that's a portable sign, illegal under the Anne Arundel zoning code.

And so the clock ticks. By Sept. 10, car wash owner Tom Fine must remove his gorilla from the sidewalk or face fines and possible criminal prosecution.

Mr. Fine said zoning inspector Joannie Coleman-Casey showed up last week to tell him the gorilla had to go. Her explanation, he said: "Somebody finds it objectionable."

This puzzled Mr. Fine, who put the first 6-foot-tall mechanical gorilla to work out on Ritchie Highway in July 1986.

It waved its mighty right arm and swayed from the hips, motions so lifelike that a bus driver headed south on Ritchie Highway once stopped to give the gorilla a lift. No kidding; this happened, Mr. Fine said.

Customers found the great ape useful as a landmark, Mr. Fine said. "Just look for the gorilla," he would tell people on the phone.

Nobody ever complained about it. But that was before the county launched its sign ordinance crackdown about a year ago in response to a wave of complaints about oversized or otherwise unsightly signs.

In a recent sweep through Glen Burnie and Brooklyn Park, Ms. Coleman-Casey said she cited 10

merchants for illegal portable signs, including a female mannequin and a stuffed grandmother doll.

"A few other merchants asked, 'Well, what about the gorilla?' " Ms. Coleman-Casey said. So, to be fair, she had to cite Mr. Fine as well.

It's just the latest episode in the unlucky history of the Ritchie Car Wash gorillas, who have suffered a series of mishaps.

It seems Mr. Fine's employees often forget to bolt the gorilla to its platform before moving it out to the street. As a result, the sidewalk gorilla is constantly falling to the pavement and injuring itself.

Mr. Fine has bought replacement gorillas twice, three gorillas in all. That's $2,785 worth of gorillas, not including spare parts, and none works any longer. One has been reassigned to the car wash lane, another just stares from inside the front window, its big rubber hands leaking stuffing.

Now the sidewalk gorilla will apparently have to be consigned to an inside job. It's particularly galling, as Mr. Fine just six months ago spent about $100 to outfit the sidewalk ape with a new gorilla suit.

It could cost a lot more in fines if Mr. Fine defies the county order: $50 for each day of violation, up to $500, or prosecution for a misdemeanor, or both. The misdemeanor carries a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine, six months in jail or both.

Ms. Coleman-Casey said there is no right of appeal in this case, unless Mr. Fine wants to petition the County Council to change the ordinance. Mr. Fine said he planned to wage a limited gorilla war, urging his customers to call their council member to complain.

"It's been there for years," Mr. Fine protested.

"He's been lucky he's been able to have the sign out there that long," Ms. Coleman-Casey replied.

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