Historic area shopkeepers decry teens Loitering youths scare away patrons, merchants complain

'It costs us money'

They seek stronger curbs on gatherings, form Crime Watch

July 22, 1996|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

For years, merchants in historic Ellicott City have urged Howard County to toughen its loitering law, complaining that teen-agers overrun the historic district each night, driving out other patrons.

"They are intimidating a lot of older people who come down here with expendable income," said Skip Siperko, a Main Street business owner for three years.

Added Barry Gibson, a district resident who operates a professional office there: "It costs us money when they hang out."

But county officials -- worried that a hasty revision of the law could cause repercussions far beyond Ellicott City -- have asked police simply to monitor the area throughout the summer while they ponder changes.

"We're going to try and work within the law that's already there," said Howard County Councilman Darrel E. Drown, an Ellicott City Republican who is to receive a report from police in September. "After looking at the whole situation, we'll see if the law needs to be fine-tuned."

The law, which dates from 1971, makes it illegal to "idle, stand, remain or gather on any commercial premises" without conducting business. The law also applies to parking lots and sidewalks associated with a business.

Breaking the loitering law is a misdemeanor punishable by a $100 fine or 10 days in jail.

But the law doesn't say how far nonpatrons must stay from a business. Ellicott City merchants would like to see that changed to specify that people cannot loiter within 150 feet of a business.

That distance, they argue, would effectively clear loiterers from the district's narrow sidewalks and streets -- pushing them across the nearby Baltimore County line or up Frederick Road.

Merchants say a tougher law is needed to deal with what they say is a flood of teen-agers descending on the district nightly between 8 and midnight -- and sometimes staying until 3 a.m.

'Baby-sitting service'

They say the youths clutter the sidewalks, foul doorways, break car windows and uproot plants.

"We're basically expected to be a baby-sitting service," complained Siperko. "A lot of parents are using Ellicott City as a drop-off. The antique shops and all down here really don't mesh well with groups of teen-agers."

Though merchants offer plenty of anecdotal evidence of loitering, the county has collected little in the way of statistics to document the problem.

Countywide, loitering accounts for a tiny proportion of police calls -- 92 complaints out of 57,000 calls to police from January to July 15, for example.

The county data do not indicate what area the calls came from, said Sgt. Steven Keller, a police spokesman.

Drown said a change in the loitering law could affect businesses throughout the county, not just in Ellicott City. And before any change, he wants to make sure a loitering problem really exists in the district, he said.

Some see no problem

Not all business owners in the historic district see the influx of young people as a problem. Some, such as the Riverside Roastery and Espresso coffeehouse and the Ellicott Theater, cater to the youth market.

"I usually hang around until most of them leave," said theater owner Tony McGuffin, who sponsors concerts for teen-agers once or twice a month. "The bulk of them are gone by 11 o'clock. I tell them if they create problems around town, I won't continue having shows for them."

'It's a bad thing'

Other merchants, however, say that whether or not a concert is scheduled, dozens of teen-agers head to the district and often sit on curbs, blocking patrons heading to restaurants.

"It's a small town, and when 25 to 50 kids come here, it's a bad thing. Someone is going to get hurt," said Deborah Rubens, a district resident for five years. "It starts as soon as school lets out for the summer. I don't understand where these kids' parents are."

To combat loitering and vandalism on weekends, district residents recently started a Crime Watch group. Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m., at least four residents drive the district's streets, armed with cellular telephones with which to call 911.

When they see unruly teen-agers, they call county police. The teen-agers usually are gone by the time police arrive, said Marc Lund, who lives and works in the district.

"If these kids don't have anywhere to go at night, they should stay home," he said. "I don't know what is happening with the youth of today."

Pub Date: 7/22/96

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