A Case of Property Owners' Rights

July 20, 1994

In a model of compromise between a landowner and his NIMBY neighbors, the Howard County Board of Appeals has struck a just arrangement that will allow a Columbia couple to run a flea market on their 17-acre property in Elkridge. Owner Barry Mehta and his wife, Dr. Charu Mehta, want to operate the flea market for four years to finance the start-up of a retirement community at the site. Neighbors have objected, saying the flea market would draw traffic, noise and unwanted people to the area.

The Mehtas' tale offers little in terms of a twist to the classic tale TTC of a community's efforts to stop reasonable development within its midst. The Board of Appeals struck a fair balance between the Mehtas' interests and the community's concerns. A list of restrictions was imposed on the flea market operators, including provisions that allow them to operate eight months of the year, seek reapproval in 1995, pave or apply an asphalt preservative to the parking lot, build entrance and exit lanes, build permanent toilets and install a temporary snow fence.

That should keep the flea market from becoming too much of an eyesore. Recall that the site is not a pasture but the former home of the Elkridge Drive-In. The Mehtas' operation, while requiring a special exception, is not a huge departure from what was there before.

Moreover, there is a cause that is driving the Mehtas that the Elkridge community would do well to remember. Not only does the couple plan to use the proceeds from the flea market to finance the retirement community, they also want to donate money to local charities and Grace Episcopal Church in Elkridge. Efforts should be taken to make sure those promises are more than self-serving.

Not surprisingly, some residents feel the restrictions do not go far enough. Undoubtedly, they will be the ones to monitor the operation to ensure that it runs properly.

A community's interests in maintaining and even upgrading its surroundings are justified. But they must be balanced with decisions that allow property owners reasonable development rights. The Mehtas' flea market will not be incompatible with the surrounding community so long as it remains a temporary fixture serving a greater long-term purpose.

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