Increase in Balto. Co. pawnshops leads to proposed zoning rules

January 09, 1995|By Patrick Gilbert | Patrick Gilbert,Sun Staff Writer

Pawnshop owners say they are "bankers to the poor." Critics call pawnshops the "poor man's robber."

Baltimore County is responding to community concerns about an increase in pawnshops in recent years by moving ahead with plans to regulate the industry through zoning.

A proposal before the Planning Board would require owners of new pawnshops to ask for a special exception to operate in most community business zones and would reassert control that the county lost when the power to license pawnshops was usurped by the state.

At one time, officials say, there were as few as three pawnshops in the county.

Now the number could run anywhere from 11 to 21, depending on which definition of a pawnshop is used. A pawnbroker is defined as any business that lends money for items left as security. But a 1982 state law that licensed dealers of secondhand precious metals and gems was amended to include pawnbrokers.

Residents and business leaders in the Liberty Road corridor say they particularly are upset about a proliferation of pawnshops there. They say the shops hamper rejuvenation efforts and attract criminal activity.

Pawnshop owners maintain that they provide a legitimate business that helps to control crime rather than contribute to it.

The Planning Board last week received an Office of Planning and Zoning report that recommended creation of a separate zoning classification and definition for pawnshops. The report also suggested other limitations on the industry.

If the board accepts the report, it could send the recommendations to the County Council and ask that legislation be introduced.

The report says a special zoning exception hearing before the zoning commissioner would allow community residents to voice their opinions as well as give county officials greater control. The commissioner could be empowered to limit the sale of firearms and hours of operation.

Noting a concern that a cluster of pawnshops could lead to the decline of a marginal neighborhood, the report recommends a minimum distance of a mile between pawnshops. It also suggests limitations on pawnshop signs, posting of surety bonds and stiff penalties for violations.

During a public hearing last week, several neighborhood leaders spoke in favor of the recommendations, but felt they were not strong enough in some areas.

"We think that the minimum distance between pawnshops should be three to five miles . . . ," said Barry L. Schleifer, executive director of the Liberty-Randallstown Coalition Inc.

Mr. Schleifer said the Liberty Road corridor extends eight miles from the city line to Carroll County.

Dr. Ella White Campbell of the Liberty Road Community Council disputed the contention that pawnshops are the poor man's banker.

"These types of businesses prey on the poor. They are the poor man's robber," Dr. Campbell said. She also suggested a limit on pawnshops in the county. That recommendation was shared by Capt. William G. Kalista Jr., commander of the Police Department's crimes against property division.

Captain Kalista said he has two officers assigned to pawnshop duty. Pawnbrokers must submit daily lists to police of all items taken in.

"If the number of pawnshops aren't limited, the amount of work would just overwhelm us," he said.

The unit recovered $60,000 worth of stolen merchandise from pawnshops in 1994, he said.

John R. DeBard, owner of Fast Cash Pawnbrokers in Dundalk, said after the hearing that he doesn't have a problem with the proposed regulations.

A legitimate pawnbroker can be an asset, Mr. DeBard said.

"Ninety-five percent of our clientele are hard-working people who are laid off or have other financial troubles," he said. "They come to us when they can't get a loan anywhere else."

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