Rattled neighbors decry snake breeding business Reptiles: Residents who live near Peter A. Kahl in Glen Arm have recoiled at the thought of a snake breeding business that they say violates zoning laws.

September 23, 1997|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Daisy, the python?

In a zoning squabble over a snake breeding operation, Glen Arm residents packed a hearing room to overflowing yesterday -- spurred by contrasting images of dairy cows and boa constrictors.

Area residents say it is outrageous that Baltimore County granted a building permit in January for breeder Peter A. Kahl's $160,000 facility at his rural home, and they charge that his business violates zoning laws.

To Kahl, though, the squabble comes down to the different images evoked by thoughts of roadside bovines and reptiles. He says he is no different from people who breed cattle, or horses.

"There's guys like me breeding snakes all over the world," he testified at the zoning hearing. "You just don't drive down the road and see a bunch of snakes in a field."

But his neighbors -- from plain-spoken dairy farmers to dulcet-toned English-born landowners -- cannot believe that county laws equate snake breeding with dairy farming. They -- and Kahl's vocal supporters -- came to Towson to tell zoning commissioner Lawrence E. Schmidt their views.

At issue is Kahl's right to use the new 50-by-100-foot breeding facility behind his home in the 12200 block of Manor Road. He's begun moving his collection of more than 200 snakes from the basement of his ranch home to the larger facility built to house them. If he cannot breed snakes there, the building will be useless, he said.

The dispute will come down to whether Kahl, the 33-year-old son of a former county executive, can breed snakes anywhere on his 5 acres, which is zoned for farming and watershed protection.

"It's either a farm or it's not a farm," Schmidt said, outlining his task while acknowledging that "snakes are icky and nobody likes to touch them."

The issue is even tougher because Kahl's building is finished -- with the endorsement of several county agencies, including the Agricultural Preservation Advisory Board, which decided breeding snakes was legally no different than raising cows or sheep.

County zoning laws define commercial agriculture as "the use of land to cultivate plants or raise or keep animals for income," and say a farm can be any land over 3 acres. Kahl and his attorney Michael Moran say his operation fits that definition.

"It's kind of a slap in the face to any farmer to build a huge commercial warehouse," said Richard W. Smith, whose family has worked 165 acres south of Kahl's house for 75 years. He said he normally minds his own business, but the Kahl operation is "just not right."

English-born Barbara J. Sherbourne, who owns 7 acres near Kahl's house, said that "never in my wildest dreams did I think we would be living next to a reptile operation." She criticized county officials who approved the project "without making jolly sure that the neighbors wouldn't be a little upset."

Neighbors also charge that Kahl's building permit mistakenly says his land has public sewer and water service, which it does not.

For the past six years, Kahl has raised rare and exotic pythons and boa constrictors in his basement. Two years ago, he decided the reptiles needed more room and so did he.

"I felt like I was living in my business," he testified, adding that the snake cages are stacked four deep in the basement and his office is off the kitchen.

He said he obtained proper approvals, and was never told by county officials to seek a special zoning hearing to forestall objections from neighbors.

Startled neighbors challenged the legitimacy of Kahl's zoning after they found out what he was building. By that time, the building was half completed and he had deposits on the rest of the work.

He said he designed the structure with steel-reinforced walls to prevent escapes or break-ins, and with 16 rooms to limit the spread of disease.

His business is handled by phone and air shipments, he said, noting that no sales are made to Maryland residents, and none of his snakes is poisonous. Kahl said he grosses between $300,000 and $400,000 annually.

Schmidt's decision is not expected for weeks.

Pub Date: 9/23/97

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