Tattoo plan would allow parlors in business areas Balto. Co. proposes 'good middle ground,' but some are opposed

October 09, 1997|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

After years in legal limbo, tattoo parlors would be allowed to operate in most Baltimore County business zones, under a proposal county planners are expected to give the planning board today.

But the proposal -- called "a good middle ground" by senior planner Hillorie Morrison -- could face a rocky future on its way to becoming law.

Two county councilmen think the plan is too lenient. Tattoo parlor advocates view it as too strict. A community activist complains that the plan deals only with the location of tattoo parlors, not their public health implications.

"People perceive tattoos as a lower-life kind of establishment," said Wayne M. Skinner, a planning board member and zoning chairman of the Towson-Loch Raven Community Council.

Viewed with suspicion by many taxpayers, tattoo parlors are among a variety of relatively unconventional businesses -- including pawn shops, methadone clinics and cellular phone towers -- that have put pressure on county zoning laws that do not specifically mention them.

Though technically illegal in the county, a handful of parlors has opened without zoning approval, operating under legal loopholes while fighting for a law that would legitimize them.

The parlors evaded state regulation when a licensing bill -- prompted by outrage over minors getting tattoos without parental consent -- failed in the General Assembly last winter. The county passed its law banning that practice.

If approved by the planning board and County Council after public hearings, the proposal would allow a tattooist or body piercer to operate in most county business zones under a special exception, but only after a public hearing and approval from the zoning commissioner.

That process worries tattoo parlor operators, who say it could tie them up in expensive appeals for years.

"Overkill" is how Michael P. Tanczyn, an attorney representing shop owners, characterized the proposed process. He says a simple occupancy permit is enough notice to government.

Vincent A. Myers, who operates Westside Tattoos in Randallstown and is a board member of the Alliance of Professional Tattooists, said that while the proposal would remove the legal cloud over such operations, the hearing process would make shops harder to open.

That process already is difficult, he noted. In July, for example, the County Council closed a legal loophole that let several shops -- including Myers' -- stay in business as "residential art salons," which are allowed.

The shop owners say that excluding them completely is unconstitutional. Several operate without zoning approval, while others are fighting protracted legal battles to survive until a new law is adopted.

"They don't like tattoo parlors," Myers says of county officials.

They aren't the only ones.

Lorraine Gordon, a nurse who lives in Linover, near Bruce Benkert's Mr. B's Tattoos in the 7500 block of Belair Road, said the county should focus on more than just where the shops are located.

"They need the health issue addressed first," she said, noting that Baltimore City requires licensing and has yearly inspections, while the county has no check on a shop owner's background, skill level or knowledge of health risks.

Despite her worries, a county Health Department report in May concluded that no outbreak of disease is traceable to tattoos, though Gordon said that conclusion is flawed by incomplete data.

Benkert, who opened without zoning approval two years ago, has been staging a delaying action in court to stay open. He welcomes any new law, he said, "as long as I don't lose my business."

The two County Council members most interested in the issue want tougher restrictions than those sought by county planners.

Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat, would confine the parlors to manufacturing areas or to one business zone where the least desirable uses -- such as used car lots -- are permitted.

Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat, warned that the special exception process "wouldn't have much impact" because it doesn't allow for consideration of a parlor's compatibility with the surrounding area. He would rather see distance restrictions to keep the parlors away from residential areas, he said.

There will be plenty of time to debate changes in the proposal.

After getting the report today, the planning board will schedule a public hearing. Later, the board will discuss the issue and vote on recommendations to the County Council, which alone has the power to change the law. That process could take months.

Pub Date: 10/09/97

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