Balto. County fines adult store $68,200

Video shop continues its two-year battle over 1998 zoning law

October 25, 2001|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

A Halethorpe adult video store faces $68,200 in fines from Baltimore County for allegedly violating zoning laws aimed at restricting such outlets from residential neighborhoods.

Operators of Southwest Video, 5648 Southwestern Blvd., claim the law is an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.

The two-year battle between the store and the county has made its way through federal court, where U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin ruled last year that the county law is constitutional. A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his ruling in June.

The county passed the law in 1998, restricting adult businesses to commercial zones designated for heavy industry. The law prohibits adult stores from operating within 1,000 feet of any residence, church, school, park, library or child care business.

The adult designation applies to any business devoting at least 20 percent of its stock or floor space to adult products. County code enforcement officers say the Southwest store, across from the Halethorpe MARC train station, uses 77 percent of its floor space for adult material.

Immediately after the federal appeals court ruling, the county began assessing a daily fine against the store. Store operators are fighting the fines before a county zoning hearing officer. The sides met before the hearing officer Sept. 21 and a second hearing date has not been scheduled.

Howard J. Schulman, the store's attorney, is accusing the county of trying to wipe out the store.

"They're trying to put them out of business," Schulman said. "It would appear to be calculated to silence this kind of expression."

County officials and community activists contend that they are not trying to shut down the operation, only move it to a place where it will conform to county law.

County officials say 9,000 acres of industrial zoning exists to accommodate such stores, a figure that store operators challenge.

"They are not in compliance with the law," said County Council Chairman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley. "It's illegal."

Joe Kinsey, president of the Halethorpe Improvement Association, has been battling the store since the county passed the law. The store is surrounded by homes.

"It doesn't belong where it is," Kinsey said. "I have no problem with freedom of speech or constitutionality as long as it's in its proper place."

The store operators recently took a plan to expand its floor space by half before the county's Development Review Committee. The committee decided not to hear the proposal until the zoning matter is resolved.

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