Council restricts adult stores 2 shops dislocated

possible legal sites are scattered widely

December 02, 1997|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Howard County's two adult video and book stores will have to close or move under a bill passed last night by the County Council, restricting such businesses to areas at least 500 feet from homes, schools or churches.

The unanimous vote came after months of political wrangling, including a regional battle on which neighborhoods would end up as possible hosts of adult businesses.

The resulting law, which takes effect in two months, will scatter the eligible sites for adult businesses throughout Howard, including commercial areas in Columbia, Ellicott City, Elkridge, Jessup and North Laurel.

But no adult business -- a designation including sexually oriented bookstores, video stores, movie theaters and topless bars -- will be allowed within 500 feet of residential areas or within 2,500 feet of each other.

Community activists called for tougher restrictions. But county lawyers warned the council that restricting adult businesses too sharply would make Howard's law vulnerable to legal attack.

"The council has written a bill that's as tough and strict against adult stores as you can go," said council Chairman Charles C. Feaga, a West Friendship Republican.

The chairmanship, which had belonged to fellow GOP Councilman Dennis R. Schrader for the past year, rotated to Feaga last night under an agreement among the council's Republican majority.

The council has wrestled with adult businesses since spring, when the Pack Shack book and video store opened on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City, infuriating area residents.

Councilman Darrel E. Drown, an Ellicott City Republican, proposed zoning restrictions forcing adult shops mainly to manufacturing areas along U.S. 1, from North Laurel to Elkridge -- angering residents in those areas.

A compromise soon emerged allowing the adult businesses in almost any zoning category that allows a regular store or office building. Debate shifted to how far the shops must be from homes and from each other.

The key elements of the bill approved last night:

Adult businesses are allowed in local business, general business, shopping center, planned employment center and planned office research zones. Equivalent areas in Columbia, which has its own zoning category, will also allow the businesses.

The adult businesses must be 500 feet from homes, churches, day care centers, schools, parks and public libraries.

The businesses must also be 2,500 feet from each other. That restriction is to prevent a concentration of adult shops, bars and movie theaters such as The Block in Baltimore.

"We don't want Route 1 becoming a red-light district," Drown said last night.

After the restrictions take effect, the Pack Shack will have one year to move or close because it is within 200 feet of an apartment building -- too close under the new law.

Adult Video & Books on U.S. 1 in Elkridge will also have to close or move because it now operates in a manufacturing zone, where adult businesses are prohibited.

With the new restrictions, less than 1 percent of Howard County is zoned for adult businesses.

County lawyers had warned that the law could be vulnerable to legal challenge if adult businesses are restricted to less than 3 percent of the county's land.

But the law still allows adult businesses on 111 different properties, which council members hope will be enough to survive legal scrutiny. The distance restrictions would limit the number of businesses to 23, however.

"This is the best that we could do," Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, said before the vote.

Some community activists who protested the proposed restrictions last week were not satisfied.

"I think there were many areas where this bill could have been stronger than it is," Carolan Stansky of Ellicott City said.

Also last night, the council voted 2-2 to reject Councilman C. Vernon Gray's plan to lower Howard's growth cap by several hundred homes.

Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, proposed capping the number of new homes allowed in Howard at 2,500 annually -- less than the 2,740 planned for each of the next two years.

He argued that the change would allow Howard to build more roads and schools to keep up with a growth rate that's among the highest in Maryland.

But the proposal failed along party lines. Democrats Gray and Lorsung voted yes; Republicans Schrader and Drown voted no.

Feaga excused himself from the vote because of a possible conflict of interest; the development of his family farm was slowed by the growth cap.

Pub Date: 12/02/97

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