Couple tries boardinghouse reach

Howard residents seek OK to convert mansion into lodging

February 22, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Corporate types visiting Howard County on business these days tend to be a pretty high-tech lot: photonics executives, software engineers, applied physicists.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that their options for accommodations might soon include something that is associated more with the age of the telegraph than the cell phone: a boardinghouse.

In one of the more unusual zoning cases to come before the county in some time, David and Cynthia Lynn have applied for permission to operate a boardinghouse at their sprawling, 3-year-old home on Route 108, east of Eliots Oak Road on the edge of Columbia. The Lynns say they will provide luxury lodgings for the increasing number of county visitors who are on long-term business assignments and want an alternative to impersonal roadside hotels.

"There are certain assignments where people are here for three or four weeks, especially in such an intense economic area. This is another option for them," said Thomas Meachum, the Lynns' lawyer.

The Lynns' application, which is scheduled for a Board of Appeals hearing Tuesday, has helped to show how ill-suited some of the local zoning rules are for the realities of today's Howard County. Peralynna Manor, as the Lynns' house is called, is a far cry from the boardinghouses of James Joyce stories and Westerns, where lonely bachelors ate silently around a table set by a stout proprietress.

The house is a white, 14,000-square-foot mansion set behind a stone gateway, circular driveway and fish pond, complete with a three-bay garage, balconies and a widow's walk. Inside, a living room with a vaulted ceiling, a 20-foot-high brick hearth around a large fireplace and 20-foot-high windows overlooks the back lawn. The upstairs area can accommodate 19 boarders, the maximum allowed by the county.

On its sign, the manor is described as a "Corporate Extended Stay Guest House." The problem is, the county zoning regulations have no such category.

Only historic homes can qualify to become bed-and-breakfasts. So, the only category in which the Lynns could apply was boardinghouse.

This has caused some trouble for their application, as county officials have questioned whether the manor meets the definition of a boardinghouse.

For starters, Planning and Zoning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. wrote in his review of the application that a boardinghouse is supposed to serve a "non-transient" population, but many of the business people the Lynns expect to serve will stay less than a month at a time and return home on weekends.

"The [Board of Appeals] must determine whether this use qualifies as a bona fide boarding house," Rutter wrote.

At the same time that the Lynns' application has highlighted the archaic nature of the zoning code, it might help to preserve it, county officials say. The county was on the verge of eliminating the boardinghouse category, along with other obsolete classifications, in a revision of its rules to be completed in April.

County planners said no one has applied to run a boardinghouse in the county for at least two decades. Some county households accept boarders, but because they take in no more than four (as the Lynns have been doing), they don't need county approval to run a boardinghouse.

But now that someone has applied to operate a boardinghouse, zoning officials have decided to retain the category, with a few changes. Under a new proposal, a boardinghouse could take more than 10 guests only if the house is on at least 5 acres, and it would be required to have access to a main road.

"Some good points have been made for this type of use, even though it's never been used in the past," Planning Board Chairwoman Joan Lancos said.

If the Lynns win the boardinghouse designation, they will find themselves in select company, historically.

Even back when boardinghouses flourished elsewhere, relatively few were to be found in rural Howard County, according to county residents with long memories.

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