Mechanic's yard in zoning dispute

February 14, 1994|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

Charles W. Cunningham says when he started fixing cars in his Ellicott City yard, fins were the wave of the future.

Life was simpler in 1954. Neighbors didn't mind a few extra cars in the yard and "shade-tree mechanics" were commonly relied upon for inexpensive repairs.

"It was like out in the country -- way out. There were only three houses out here," said Mr. Cunningham, now 68.

"I swapped working on people's vehicles for help getting the house built," he said of his part frame, part masonry, part cinder-block home on Horseshoe Road off Route 104.

Now the retired Normandy Ford mechanic may be forced to put his tools away because one of his suburban neighbors turned him in to county zoning authorities.

"If you let it continue, it's only going to get worse," said neighbor Nancy J. Watts during a recent Planning Board meeting. "I have my house on the market. No one wants to buy it because it overlooks the 'junkyard.' "

The "junkyard" Ms. Watts spoke of consisted of three trailers, Mr. Cunningham's three cars and a truck, six cars owned by two of his children who live with him and a 1976 Mercury belonging to a grandson -- in addition to customers' vehicles.

"At any given time, there was anywhere from 10 to 20 cars in his back yard, piles of auto parts, piles of junk," she said last week. Even covered by recent ice and snow, "It still looks like a junkyard."

Ms. Watts, who moved to the Saddle Ridge subdivision two years ago, said she contacted five state and county agencies, asking them to look for environmental problems, possibly from oil or battery storage on the property. Four of them visited the site, but only county zoning authorities took action.

On Oct. 21, Mr. Cunningham received a zoning complaint for operation of a vehicle repair facility on residential property and parking of more than one unregistered vehicle. Mr. Cunningham was ordered to stop his repair business by the next day.

"I had a '50 Ford and a '65 Falcon, but the zoning [authorities] made me get rid of them," Mr. Cunningham said. "I bought that Falcon new."

Another neighbor who has known Mr. Cunningham for several decades had a much different opinion. Ada Morris told the

Planning Board that she was thankful to have Mr. Cunningham for a neighbor.

"It does bother me that people with their fine houses can come into an area and condemn the people who already live there," she said.

The cars might never have been a problem were it not for the sale of neighboring land owned by Mr. Cunningham's late brother-in-law. The land was developed as Saddle Ridge.

"Nobody ever approached me at all about cleaning up," said Mr. Cunningham. He acknowledgedthat he had meant to clean up the property for years, and had kept putting off the task.

Two other Saddle Ridge residents who testified during the Feb. 3 Planning Board meeting said they objected only to the property's appearance, and had no quarrel with the part-time repair business. But Ms. Watts said she wanted the repairs to stop.

Mr. Cunningham said some residents of the subdivision, although not those who complained to zoning authorities, have even had their cars fixed in his yard.

Now that Mr. Cunningham has had a zoning complaint filed against him, he must prove that current zoning regulations prohibiting auto repair businesses on residential land don't apply to his property.

The three members of the Planning Board who heard his case were split on whether he succeeded in making his case. They voted 2-1 in favor of recommending that he be granted confirmation of a "nonconforming use," which means his repair business was permitted when it began and "grandfathered" out of later zoning regulations.

The Board of Appeals, which will make the final decision, is scheduled to hear testimony at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 22 in the George Howard county office building in Ellicott City.

The Department of Planning and Zoning's recommendation was not as generous as the Planning Board's. Its report said that even if the Board of Appeals decides Mr. Cunningham has been fixing cars on the property since 1954, he is still in violation.

The department contends that backyard repairs were not a "customary home occupation" allowed in the zoning rules of the day, as Mr. Cunningham's attorney, Ed Puls, has argued.

But if precedent is any indication, Mr. Cunningham has a good chance of continuing his repair business.

Mr. Puls noted that the Board of Appeals confirmed a nonconforming use for another "shade-tree mechanic" in Ellicott City on the premise that his business was a customary home occupation in the early 1960s.

When questioned by Planning Board members, county Planning and Zoning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. conceded that the two cases were "very, very similar."

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