Adult stores feared on U.S. 1 Neighbors wary of zoning proposal's impact on corridor

September 10, 1997|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

A proposed zoning amendment that would limit adult video and book stores in Howard County to heavy business areas and industrial parks is drawing fire from residents who live along the U.S. 1 corridor because much of that land is near their communities.

The residents argue that the change would keep sexually oriented businesses out of high-brow Columbia and Ellicott City while driving them to the more blue-collar, less influential towns of Elkridge, Jessup and Savage.

The county Planning Board will review the proposed legislation at 7 p.m. tonight -- and representatives of the Elkridge Community Association will be there to oppose it.

"Basically, our feeling is that rather than come up with a creative solution to the problem of these establishments, the county is just going to dump them on the Route 1 corridor and bury their heads in the sand," said Kevin Doyle, chairman of the group's zoning and planning committee. "That's not acceptable."

But the amendment's co-sponsors, County Executive Charles I. Ecker and Councilman Darrel E. Drown, say that's not their intention.

"We don't want [adult businesses] there either," Ecker said. "But the courts have ruled that we cannot outlaw the stores -- period. So then we have to try to restrict them to certain areas under certain requirements."

Other counties have fought to contain adult businesses. Last December, a state appeals court upheld an Anne Arundel County ordinance that restricted adult film arcades and bookstores to commercial strips along highways and heavy industrial areas.

Harford County officials tried to regulate retailers of adult materials five years ago through intensive licensing and review procedures, but the local ordinance was struck down by the federal courts in 1995.

The Howard County legislation is the county's response to the uproar caused by the April opening of the Pack Shack, an adult video and book store on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City.

Residents there have expressed concerns about the store's proximity to an apartment complex filled with children.

Sgt. Steven E. Keller, a police spokesman, said officers have responded to 30 calls -- most of them from store employees complaining about almost-daily demonstrations outside the shop.

Concerned citizens successfully persuaded Drown, whose district includes Ellicott City, to draft the amendment.

If the amendment is passed by the Howard County Council, the legislation would force owners seeking to open sexually oriented stores to comply with what some free-speech activists are calling extreme conditions.

For instance, owners would be required to apply for a permit from the Department of Planning and Zoning. Businesses would be required to be at least 400 feet from residences and at least 1,000 feet from another adult store.

But the most contentious aspect of the amendment is its attempt to restrict such businesses to land zoned only for general business, known as B2 districts, and manufacturing, M1 and M2 -- mainly warehouses and factories in industrial areas away from residential areas.

Zoning officials have estimated that less than 5 percent of the county's 160,000 acres is zoned for business and manufacturing.

Some areas, such as the Mall in Columbia and the Howard County Fairgrounds in West Friendship, are zoned for heavy business, but it is unlikely that any adult stores would be placed at such locales.

That leaves the U.S. 1 corridor, where many residents say they don't want sexually oriented businesses near their neighborhoods.

"I wouldn't be happy about having one right around the corner from my house," said Leah Woodbury, a nine-year resident of Jessup who lives about a mile from U.S. 1. "I have small children, so I don't have to worry about them. But if they were older, I'd be concerned that they would try to get in."

Residents want respect

But the outrage felt by some residents is secondary to a larger issue -- that of respect.

Local activists say the amendment is just another in a series of perceived slights by county officials, who, residents say, view the eastern part of the county with disdain.

Jessup residents are appealing an April decision by the county Board of Appeals to allow a controversial rock quarry on a 546-acre site off U.S. 1.

Homeowners in North Laurel are battling a proposed Columbia-style village that would include more than 1,400 single-family and multifamily homes on a 522-acre site straddling Interstate 95, south of Gorman Road and north of Route 216.

Elkridge residents successfully fought off a proposed solid waste trash transfer station on a 17-acre site off U.S. 1.

Homeowners along the corridor say such battles are commonplace.

"There is a history of less-desirable things ending up in Savage or Elkridge or Jessup, rather than being in ideal, homogenized Columbia," said William B. Waff, president of the Savage Community Association. "There's a certain amount of truth to it."

Or as North Laurel resident Donna Thewes puts it bluntly: "To the county, this part of the county is the armpit."

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