Car sales on Sundays lose ground Legislators steer Howard bill away from statewide debate

'Jobs is the bottom line'

Local lawmakers fear blue-law controversy could lose dealership

February 14, 1996|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.

Hoping to quell a firestorm of opposition, state legislators are trying to scale back a bill to allow Sunday car sales in Howard and Anne Arundel counties, making it apply only to Howard.

The bill -- which is intended to pave the way for CarMax, a "super-store" used car dealer, to locate in North Laurel -- threatens to ignite the perennial issue of blue laws barring Sunday car sales in most of Maryland.

Legislative leaders, including Sen. Walter M. Baker, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, want to avoid such a statewide debate and have delayed action on the bill, which was to have come to the Senate floor today.

"This was intended to be a local Howard County bill," said Sen. Walter M. Baker,

chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, about attempts to expand the bill beyond Howard. "You shouldn't mess with local bills."

Howard lawmakers, who had little inkling that their local bill would face major opposition, worry that failure to pass it could lead CarMax to locate elsewhere in the Baltimore area, or even in Northern Virginia.

"It's been little bit of a hornets' nest that we've entered," said Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, the Republican chairman of the Howard County delegation. "The blue laws have always been controversial in Maryland. It's sort of a sensitive situation."

Most of the state's blue-law restrictions, which date back to the Colonial era, were lifted during the 1980s. Car dealers are a major exception, with only Montgomery and Prince George's dealers allowed to sell on Sundays.

Howard lawmakers took aim at the Sunday restriction after CarMax, a subsidiary of Richmond, Va.-based Circuit City stores, announced plans for a 300-worker used-car operation at the vacant Freestate Raceway in North Laurel.

Sunday sales would allow a Howard County-based CarMax to compete with dealerships in neighboring Montgomery and Prince George's. Without it, CarMax would locate closer to Baltimore -- where it would face no Sunday competition -- or to Northern Virginia where it could sell on Sundays, said Paul Rakov, a spokesman for CarMax.

Howard officials argue that the repeal is necessary to clear the way for an important economic development project. In addition to filling a property vacant for years, CarMax would bring 300 jobs at salaries ranging from $15,000 to $100,000, they say.

"Jobs is the bottom line," said County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

But many car dealers around the state -- including 10 of the 13 in Howard -- oppose lifting the restriction in Howard. They fear it would lead to repeal statewide, in effect forcing them to open on Sundays to remain competitive.

Dealers argue that the expense of opening on Sunday would wipe out what they project to be a marginal increase in sales. And some cite less material reasons.

"The largest concern is the quality of life for me and my staff," John Miller, co-owner of the 75-employee Miller Chevrolet in Ellicott City, a family owned business since 1928. "I consider Sunday sacred to be with my family, visit my church and my friends."

The legislative controversy began heating up in earnest last week when the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee approved a version of the bill lifting Sunday sales restrictions in Anne Arundel as well as Howard.

Even some Anne Arundel lawmakers say they supported that move only as a last resort, to protect Anne Arundel dealers from Sunday competition in Howard.

"We would rather not see Howard County repeal the blue laws," said Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel Democrat. "I don't really like to stand in the way of economic development, but we have an interest to protect -- the interest of dealerships in our county."

For the moment, the bill remains in committee, as lawmakers try to work out a compromise that would give Howard what it needs without opening the door to a statewide repeal of the blue laws, said Mr. McCabe. It could reach the Senate floor this week, he said.

Meanwhile, CarMax supporters continue to seek repeal of Sunday sales restrictions in Howard.

"Three hundred and fifty jobs are not easy to come by, especially from a significant and reputable company," said Alan Rifkin, an attorney for CarMax and Automotive Trade Association for the National Capital Area.

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