Neighbors in historic Ellicott City are furious about an expanded deck behind Cacao Lane Restaurant. They claim the restaurant dodged the customary historic commission approvals, and they worry that numerous and noisy late-night patrons could make their summer unbearable.
Restaurant owner Allen Parsons, who got approval from the Historic District Commission in 1988 for plans to build three decks, said the decks completed in late June, which total roughly 1,300 square feet, became necessary after he encountered unexpected stone in the ground.
He returned to the historic commission early this month for approval of the revised decks.
Neighbors charge that if the restaurateur had sought permission before building the decks, he never would have received the commission's approval.
"I think it sets a terrible precedent," said resident Sally Bright. "Anybody can then build something and get it approved."
But Mr. Parsons said he thought the revised decks were already approved after the former executive secretary to the Historic District Commission inspected the construction site several times.
"We were in the process of [building the decks], and she would say, 'It looks great,' " Mr. Parsons said of Alice Ann Wetzel, who left her job in late March. "She saw it finished."
During the May 6 historic commission meeting, Mr. Parsons said he had no written record of Ms. Wetzel's visits to the construction site.
"We didn't exchange letters," said Mr. Parsons, who said he and Ms. Wetzel discussed safety issues and other matters related to the decks.
The consulting engineering firm that revised Mr. Parsons' deck plans mailed a letter dated Aug. 15, 1991, to John Dreisch, county chief of inspection and enforcement, explaining his change in plans.
"As far as I was concerned, the issue was dead," Mr. Parsons said. "The changes were already approved."
He said he did not seek approval from the historic commission until neighbors began complaining about the size of the decks.
Mr. Parsons says the commission approved a general plan in 1988 that did not specify how big the deck could be.
Commission minutes from the October 1988 meeting indicate no discussion about square footage.
"There was no mention of how many square feet it would be," Mr. Parsons said. "They approved it without any square footage."
During the meeting, commission members said they were troubled by the way the decks were built.
"I have a real concern about the precedent that this sets for Ellicott City and how it was built," said member Cheryl McAfee. "I think this is a very difficult issue and very hard to decide."
Size was also an issue. "I firmly believe that the size of the deck is too big," member Joseph Tieperman said.
Instead of ordering Mr. Parsons to reduce the size of the decks, the commission said it would meet next month to discuss ways to camouflage them.
Neighbors say it is unfair to allow the decks to stand, because they were built without approval.
"All we're asking in this case is for fairness to be restored," said Jeff Rubin, who lives on Church Road above the restaurant. Residents accuse the commission of holding residents to stricter building standards than merchants.
"Why does the little guy always get stomped on?" asked resident Phil Ault, who said he was forced to replace two storm windows after the commission ruled them illegal.
"The board is not applying fairness in all cases," Mr. Rubin said. "When it comes to big issues, they're reluctant to enforce the rules."
Residents also have complained about loud music and other noise.
Mr. Parsons said he will close the decks at 10 p.m. this year and will build a 13-foot-high wall to reduce noise from the restaurant.
Last summer, the decks were open past midnight.
Commission Chairwoman Jean O. Hannon said she would not comment until after the June 3 meeting.
But residents said they won't be satisfied until the decks are adjusted to the approved size.
"I think the size of the decks should be reduced to make it generally consistent with what was originally proposed," Mr. Rubin said.