In the wake of a zoning ruling that exposed major loopholes in the county's ability to regulate crowded rental homes, Baltimore County councilmen have introduced one bill and are preparing another to give more power to code enforcement officers.
County zoning law says that no more than two renters unrelated to the owner can live in a house in a single-family zone. But in some areas, particularly around Towson University, renters looking for cheap housing crowd into dwellings while landlords turn a blind eye. The county and neighborhood groups often have trouble enforcing the law because it's difficult to prove conclusively how many people live together.
The first bill, introduced last week, is designed to help the county make its case at enforcement hearings by forcing defendants to turn over material they plan to use at the hearings and to respond to written questions.
Arnold Jablon, the director of the Department of Permits and Development Management, who drafted the bill, said it will be a "tremendous tool" in code enforcement. Officers can't enter homes to inspect for code violations without permission, and the county has no way to force alleged violators to turn over documents or even to show up at hearings.
This bill would not only force landlords to respond but also provide for fines if they don't.
"They've always gotten all of our information, but we haven't been able to get any of theirs," Jablon said. "It's always been a one-sided situation. This is going to balance the books."
The other major component of the bill would allow the county to skip a preliminary enforcement step and issue a citation for repeat offenders.
"The thing is, some of the people who are violating the code know they're doing it, and they're just playing the system," said Councilman Wayne M. Skinner, a Towson Republican who co-sponsored the bill. "We want to start getting tougher with repeat violators."
The legislation comes after the county lost a case taken to the Board of Appeals involving a house at 63 Burkshire Road. In that case, two tenants were given 1 percent stakes in the house, theoretically allowing two other tenants to live there in compliance with the law.
A hearing officer ruled the ownership arrangement was a sham. He said that because one of the owners maintained voter registration and a driver's license in another state, the house couldn't be considered the owner's "primary residence," another requirement of the law.
But last month, the Board of Appeals said that the law defines "owner" as the person listed on the county's tax records, as the two 1 percent owners are. Since the owners spent most of their time in the rowhouse - and not in their parents' homes - it is clearly their primary residence, the board decided.
Board members also said they were disturbed by the conduct of the hearing officer, Stanley J. Schapiro, who gathered information on his own instead of deciding the case using evidence presented by the two sides.
County officials hope that with the bill introduced last week and another Skinner will offer this week clarifying residency requirements, some of the loopholes exposed by the Burkshire Road case will be closed. Jablon said the issue of ownership may also need to be addressed through legislation.
"In some cases in the past, the county has been sort of blindsided by some of the creative angles that the lawyers are coming up with," said Whitney Dudley, a neighborhood activist who has worked on code enforcement near Towson University for years. "This helps bring some of them to light."