Company sues zoning official

Suit is latest round in fight over adult business sites

February 19, 1999|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

The fight to restrict adult businesses in Howard County is getting personal.

Nathaniel Lightfoot Inc., which operates Adult Video & Books in the 7400 block of U.S. 1 in Elkridge, has filed a lawsuit in Howard County Circuit Court that accuses William F. O'Brien of abusing his role as chief of comprehensive planning and zoning for the county Department of Planning and Zoning.

The suit, filed Feb. 4, alleges that O'Brien tried "to put the Plaintiff out of business in order to suppress free speech." The suit seeks $500,000 in damages from O'Brien.

O'Brien and Deputy County Solicitor Paul Johnson, who will represent O'Brien, declined to comment. But O'Brien's boss, Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr., did not hide his displeasure.

"It's harassment," Rutter said yesterday. "I'm absolutely certain that Bill was acting only in an official capacity."

Howard J. Schulman, an attorney representing Nathaniel Lightfoot, disagreed.

"I think he's got it backwards," Schulman said of Rutter. O'Brien "is trying to close down my client's business without letting us have our day in court."

No court date has been set on two appeals on behalf of Nathaniel Lightfoot. Schulman has asked the U.S. District Court in Baltimore to reconsider an Aug. 20 ruling that states Adult Video & Books does not have standing to challenge a county ordinance regulating adult entertainment businesses because it was already in the wrong zoning district when the law was adopted.

That law, enacted in 1997, confines adult book stores, movie theaters and live entertainment clubs to general business areas, known as B1 and B2 districts.

The statute also requires such businesses to be at least 500 feet from residential communities, churches, day care centers, libraries, parks and schools, and at least 2,500 feet from any other sexually oriented store.

In a related matter, the Circuit Court has yet to review an Aug. 27 county Board of Appeals decision ordering the video and magazine store to shut down.

That board unanimously agreed with county officials that Adult Video & Books was a retail establishment operating in an M2 district, or heavy industrial and warehousing zone. The county zoning code prohibits retail businesses in M2 and M1 districts.

Although the business has been operating in the wrong zone for more than four years, zoning inspectors did not issue a violation notice until April 8, 1998, because no one had filed an official complaint with the county.

Schulman argued that since the Board of Appeals ruling, O'Brien has sought to shut down the store solely because of the products offered there.

"If this was some other institution selling some other material, he would not be doing what he's doing," Schulman said of O'Brien. "He's the one insisting on trying to close them down."

Rutter disputed the lawsuit's claims, calling the suit "frivolous, harassing, and intimidating. The man's just trying to do his job."

Schulman also represents Pack Shack Inc., which is seeking an injunction to block the county from forcing the store to move from its location on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City. A Circuit Court date has not been scheduled.

Pub Date: 2/19/99

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