Home business owners run up against Frederick County zoning laws

May 02, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

JEFFERSON -- Tom Patrick helps people create wildlife habitats in their backyards by phone, fax and mail from his office in a rustic barn just a few dozen steps from home.

Georgia Patrick runs a home-based business -- consulting for professional and trade associations -- from an adjacent office, which, like her husband's, affords sweeping views of the rolling hills of southwestern Frederick County.

"This is what a lot of people would like to be doing," said Mrs. Patrick. "You don't expect problems. You're not driving back and forth. You're not polluting. And you're using '90s technology."

The couple's businesses seem ideally suited for the 29-acre wildlife habitat they have created outside their home. UPS or Federal Express makes deliveries, but no clients visit the site. The couple make no products, and Mr. Patrick has just one employee.

However, these former Washington-area commuters have found that some neighbors do not agree, to the point that the Patricks face criminal charges -- with the potential of heavy fines and even jail time.

At a glance, the Patricks' dilemma seems a case of neighbor-against-neighbor, or new-fangled business vs. outdated law. But it has produced allies in other owners of home-based businesses, an increasing phenomenon in this day of high-tech communication.

One sympathizer, Rudy Lewis, president of the National Association of Home-Based Businesses in Baltimore, says that zoning laws in Maryland and other states lag behind the needs of expanding home-based occupations.

He estimates that nationally there are 12 million to 15 million home-based businesses, and he says that the Patricks' case is not unusual.

Yet the Patricks, despite the contention and expense they've faced, also seem to be requiring Frederick County to review its own zoning philosophy on the matter -- maybe even to change its rules, as have at least two neighboring counties.

The couple is charged under a 35-year-old zoning law that doesn't allow nonfarm businesses in agricultural zones and a 1977 zoning law that requires a $30 permit for most home-based businesses. Their land is zoned for agricultural use and, unaware that they needed a permit, they didn't get one.

They're also accused of using more than 30 percent of the square footage of a dwelling or accessory building for business and of having a nonresident employee. The Patricks' businesses occupy less than half of the 4,000-square-foot barn.

Short-term, the couple could be fined as much as $3,000 and face 60 days in jail for zoning violations, as indicated in charging documents filed in Frederick County District Court in March. They fear the violations -- based on three inspections dating back to last June -- could mean as much as $800,000 in fines and up to seven years in jail because each separate day of violation is subject to a $500 fine and 10 days in jail under county laws.

A court date is set for May 10, but county officials say they hope to resolve the case before then and are working out an agreement with the Patricks. The county has proposed allowing Mr. Patrick to continue to run his conservation business from the barn, but it wants Mrs. Patrick to move her company into her house.

Mr. Patrick's business is considered agricultural, but hers is not. Criminal charges would then be placed on an inactive docket.

"Very seldom do we get to trial," said Joseph E. Emerson, county deputy attorney. "All we ever try for in these cases is compliance. We're not trying to persecute anybody."

And he added: "We're not talking serious criminal charges."

The Patricks, however, view the criminal charges as "severe and unheard of" for zoning violations, which they consider a civil matter. "We take the criminal charges very seriously, and so does our attorney," Mr. Patrick said.

Filing criminal charges for zoning violations may seem extraordinary, but officials in Frederick and neighboring counties said the practice is not uncommon. More typical in other counties, however, are the issuance of warnings and civil citations.

Neighboring Howard and Montgomery counties have far more permissive zoning ordinances for home-based businesses. In most instances, residents do not even need permits as long as they follow regulations limiting space, parking and number of employees.

The Patricks, who moved to Frederick County from Harper's Ferry, W. Va., six years ago, said their troubles began after two neighbors complained to county officials about "commercial operations" and delivery traffic on a private lane they share.

It's more than traffic that bothers neighbor Margaret Bartholow, the only accuser who would talk about the case and whose home overlooks the Patricks' acreage. Her family moved into their home eight years ago, she said, expecting the six-lot development off Fry Road, south of Jefferson, to remain residential.

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