Banned from sun, Elkridge business could die

Zoning officials say plants must go inside

July 20, 1999|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

Harry Millstein knows his flowers.

The owner of Greta's Gardens in Elkridge knows that cauliflower and broccoli seeds planted in the fall can withstand Maryland winters. He knows that pansies thrive during the spring and fall and must be kept in the shade during the summer.

Millstein also knows that marigolds and petunias need sunlight and that if he moves them to a covered porch in front of his nursery as Howard County zoning officials have ordered him to do, the annuals -- and his business -- will perish.

"I cannot operate a business like that," Millstein says. "My business survives on plants [being] outdoors, in the sun."

Millstein's dilemma began before he signed a five-year lease a year ago to rent an 8,800-square-foot building on 0.7 of an acre in the 6800 block of Washington Blvd.

The tiny parcel is zoned M-2, for heavy industrial use, which prohibits retail sales and displays on the property.

But as far back as the 1940s, various retail ventures ranging from a car dealership to a pottery shop sprouted up on the property. The most recent incarnation was a furniture store in 1997.

None of the commercial businesses operated with county approval until James E. Collins, who bought the land in 1983, asked the county Department of Planning and Zoning last year to permit Millstein to start a garden and florist shop.

Despite objections from Edward Dick, who owns a nursery several hundred feet from the site, the department approved Collins' request, but limited retail display and sales on the property to inside the building and under the covered front porch.

But zoning inspector William J. Dukes, following up on a written complaint two months ago, found that Millstein kept his marigolds and petunias behind a fenced area next to the store -- clearly visible from Washington Boulevard.

Dukes issued Millstein a cease-and-desist order July 6, ordering him to make changes or face criminal and civil penalties.

Millstein concedes that the marigolds and petunias are on display, but he says any customer who wishes to buy the flowers must go inside the store to make the purchase.

Millstein also argues that the nature of his business prevents him from keeping plants and flowers indoors.

"Where am I supposed to keep my plants?" he asks. "Plants can't stay underneath [the porch]. They need sun."

Bob Lalush, a county planner, says that although he is sympathetic to Millstein's problems, he is handcuffed by the zoning code.

"The property is zoned the way it is zoned, and we're required to do things in a legal manner," Lalush says. "I don't want to sound heartless, but that is the situation here."

Lalush says Millstein could ask the Zoning Board to rezone the property to include retail sales or ask the County Council to amend the zoning code, but both options would likely require hiring a lawyer -- a costly idea that Millstein says he cannot afford.

Millstein says he believes that Dick complained about the competition.

"I'm killing his business," Mill- stein says of Dick's nursery. "He's jealous. If I was in his place, I'd be jealous of me, too."

Dick did not respond to a request for comment.

Millstein says he could attach black plastic to the fence to hide his flowers from Washington Boulevard, but he doesn't know whether that would satisfy county officials.

Millstein says if he cannot keep his flowers and plants outside, he will have to move his business elsewhere. But he pledges not to reopen in the county.

"Not in Howard County. Anywhere but Howard County," Mill- stein says. "Instead of the county helping new businesses, they go against them."

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