Peaceful coexistence with junkyard tested

Tension: Some residents of affluent Clarksville objected when an established auto recycling business brought in three trailers and piled up some debris.

April 14, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Clarksville was in the boondocks when a pair of automobile junkyards opened on Hall Shop Road more than a half-century ago. Now it's one of the premier addresses in the seventh-wealthiest county in the nation.

The adjoining junkyards are still there - surrounded by houses priced at $500,000 and more.

It's hardly a fabulous view for the well-heeled crowd, but most neighbors are keenly aware of who was there first. The new Colonials and sport utility vehicles that transformed the community have peacefully coexisted with the 16 acres of old cars and trucks.

Until now.

When the junkyard owned by Tyler's Auto Recyclers added over-the-hill mobile homes and piles of debris recently, the delicate balance was upset. Some fed-up residents - new and established - called on zoning enforcers.

"I hate the idea of a dump operating in Clarksville," one person wrote anonymously to the county Department of Planning and Zoning.

Jeff Tyler, a Columbia resident who owns the business with his family, thinks his neighbors would have felt better had they complained to him instead. He said he was not starting a landfill, although he now realizes he was violating zoning rules - the notices came in the mail about three weeks ago.

He brought in two mobile homes in December, he said, to store mechanical parts stripped from the cars and got a third one to serve as an office.

"We're going to be getting rid of them," he said, sitting in his makeshift office and trying to figure out what he will do for a replacement.

He is hauling out the debris, too. He said pieces of metal, wood and other junk were scattered across the property, and he piled them up to get them out of the way.

"I guess it looks worse in a pile," Tyler said. "We understand there's a problem. We're working on it."

When the junkyards opened, Howard County didn't have zoning enforcers. It didn't even have zoning.

George W. Wise opened the first junkyard in 1938, said his wife, Marie, now 85. In the 1940s, Lorenzo Matthews opened a junkyard nearby. Next came Wise's nephew, Ellis, who went into business between them and bought Matthews' yard in 1971, Marie Wise recalled.

As family members lived and worked on the tree-shrouded parcels, the farms that surrounded them sprouted houses. More than 200 were built within a half-mile radius during the past 12 years.

Allen Wise, who co-owns Ellis Wise's junkyard, shook his head at what people were willing to pay for the privilege of living near him.

"I told them 10 years ago, when they started developing around us, you have to come past our front yard to get to that three-hundred-, four-hundred-thousand-dollar house you're considering," he said.

But the junkyards don't appear to have affected property values.

Steven James, a Realtor with RE/MAX Columbia who lives about 2,000 yards from the recyclers, said most of the closest houses that were put back on the market sold within five days - for an average of about $175,000 more than what the original owners had paid.

The side-by-side junkyards, he said, "had zero impact."

"It's a wooded piece of property, so when the leaves are on the trees, you can hardly notice they're there," James said.

Tyler weighed the downside of being an island in a sea of mini-mansions when he had the unexpected chance to buy George Wise's 8.5-acre junkyard. He knew more drivers would pass by if he had a spot on the heavily commercial U.S. 1 instead, an area popular with junkyards.

But Tyler, 34, and his brother had bought parts from "dollar George" for years and liked the idea of continuing an auto-recycling tradition. They took over in summer 2000 with the understanding that George and Marie Wise could live on the property as long as they liked.

With the business came 100 vehicles - cars, trucks, a few buses. Now 500 automobiles rest on the rolling land, about half the number the previous owner had in the junkyard's prime. Tyler's company ships 15 to 20 parts a month across the nation; during the week, local motorists roll in looking for carburetors, air filters and mufflers.

"I go there sometimes just to see what's on the lot," said Silver Spring resident Bill Burnett, 44, a regular who made his first trip there before he was in the first grade.

Business is slower than Tyler anticipated. Yet his biggest worry is not money but what will happen in a few years, when the closest neighbors of all move in. A developer plans to build 14 houses directly across the street.

"One thing that discourages me is, people will buy a house next to an airport, live there a couple years and then complain about the airport noise," Tyler said.

He has no grievances about his current neighbors, some of whom stop by for parts.

"It's a pretty passive operation," said Jim Long, an engineer who moved to Clarksville nine months ago. Thinking of the zoning complaint, he added with a laugh: "I've got a pile of junk in my yard from remodeling - maybe I'd better move it soon."

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