Planning officials reject pleas for tighter limits on adult stores

Recommendation due June 9 on proposed law

Howard County

May 28, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County planning officials have rejected pleas by church members to more tightly restrict adult bookstore locations in a proposed zoning law.

The county Planning Board did not vote on the revised proposal at a meeting yesterday, but it is scheduled to make a recommendation June 9. The issue could then move to the County Council in July.

County officials made one minor change to the proposed ordinance, cutting from a year to a month the time businesses would have to comply with new regulations.

"It is discouraging," said Allen Harris, senior pastor of Columbia Presbyterian Church on Route 108. More than 30 church members attended a board hearing May 12 and urged the county to vigorously restrict adult bookstores and not to be intimidated by court rulings or the free speech argument.

"To make one tiny change doesn't seem to reflect the spirit of accommodation that was expressed at the meeting," Harris said.

But Howard B. Schulman, attorney for the Pack Shack, an adult book store on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City, had a different view.

"It sounds to me like they're still out to get the Pack Shack," he said.

The county's 5-year-old adult entertainment zoning law was declared unconstitutional by Maryland's highest court last year because it so tightly restricted store locations that it was deemed a violation of free speech guarantees.

Under that law, the county claimed there were 23 legal sites in Howard for adult bookstores, though Pack Shack attorneys argued the law restricted them to far fewer places. The law required a minimum of 2,500 feet between adult businesses, and at least 500 feet between an adult business and residential zones, homes or schools.

The replacement draft law drops those limits to 1,000 and 300 feet respectively, which would allow for 101 legal sites -- enough to fend off any new constitutional challenge, according to county planners.

Church members testified that pornography damages the county and hurts families.

"One of the things that makes Howard County desirable is the lack of adult entertainment businesses," Harris said yesterday.

Steve Lafferty, deputy county planning director, said the county's Office of Law carefully reviewed the draft of the ordinance after the often-impassioned testimony at the May 12 hearing, but felt that only one minor change should be made. That would require businesses -- such as the Pack Shack -- 30 days to conform to the law, once it takes effect, rather than one year.

Whatever the details of the provision, the county needs a replacement law, said County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel/Savage Democrat.

"We've got to have some sort of law," he said. "We're not going to give up our zoning authority."

In another case, the board approved reversing a zoning change made last year as part of comprehensive rezoning, after county planners acknowledged that they had erred.

Owners of three industrial lots on 12 acres along Montevideo Road, near U.S. 1, won backing by the county planning staff and by the Planning Board to regain the manufacturing zoning they had lost. The county Zoning Board, which is made up of County Council members, must now decide the issue.

The properties are not visible from U.S. 1, and so would not hurt the county's goal of beautifying the old commercial corridor, the owners' attorneys argued. They added that the new, more restrictive U.S. 1 corridor zoning would cripple the owners' ability to do business and reduce the value of their land. The lawyers also said that none of the owners had received notice of the zoning change from the county, which used sometimes out-of-date state ownership records for mailings.

Attorney Charles Wehland said the planning staff's recommendation of a zoning change based on the county's error is extremely rare over his 40 years in practice.

"I think there are compelling reasons to rezone to M-2 [manufacturing]," said board member H. Gregory Tornatore.

Board member Gary Kaufman disagreed that the rezoning was an error, but he was upset that all three owners claimed they had received no notice.

The board also approved plans for the first 65 townhouses and two businesses in Maple Lawn Farms, the mixed-use development in Fulton.

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