Supporters rally behind mechanic

February 23, 1994|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

If Howard County zoning regulations were enforced by popular vote, Charles W. Cunningham's auto repair business would not be in danger.

Mr. Cunningham and many of his neighbors and customers say that he has made a lot of friends since 1954 when he began fixing cars on his one-acre lot off Route 104 in Ellicott City.

Last night, nearly 50 supporters turned out at a county Board of Appeals hearing to help the 68-year-old mechanic save his business.

"I'd say, 'How much I owe you, Mr. Cunningham?' He'd say, 'Oh, I'll catch you later,' " said Norbert O'Donnell, a neighbor on Horseshoe Road who first got a car repaired by Mr. Cunningham in 1962. "He's an asset to the neighborhood."

Mr. Cunningham, who did not attend the hearing because he has pneumonia, was forced to take his case to the board last fall after one of his more recent neighbors turned him in to zoning authorities.

That neighbor, Nancy Watts, told the board that she noticed many cars in his yard when she purchased her new home nearby two years ago. A real estate agent informed her that Mr. Cunningham was in violation of zoning rules and would be shut down.

She, her husband, Daniel, and neighbor Janet Harris all said that as many as 30 vehicles were stored in the yard at a time, including three recreational vehicles.

"We were under the impression that it was a residential neighborhood," said Ms. Harris, adding that she had thought the county would enforce its zoning regulations when she purchased her home four years ago. "We bought our house back there because we wanted to be secluded. We wanted to be away from the rest of the population," she said.

Mr. Cunningham has said that he owns three cars and a truck, that two of his children own six cars between them and that a grandson owns a car. In addition, he says, he has had a problem with customers not removing their vehicles soon after they are repaired.

The board is to decide the case at a work session set for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in the George Howard county office building.

For Mr. Cunningham to continue to repair cars on his property, the board must determine that zoning regulations did not prohibit such businesses in residential areas when the business began and that the business has been continual since then.

Seven to 10 people stood up when Mr. Cunningham's attorney, Ed Puls, asked whether they had had their cars repaired on the property during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

The Department of Planning and Zoning disagreed that Mr. Cunningham's repair work was a "customary home occupation" permitted under the old zoning regulations and recommended that the board not allow him to continue.

The county Planning Board recently voted 2-1 in Mr. Cunningham's favor.

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