Bengies: The Little Drive-in That Could

Covenant ensures the outdoor screen still will flicker with moving images

Baltimore ... or Less

July 18, 2004|By Alexandra Fenwick | Alexandra Fenwick,Sun Staff

At the Perry Hall Town Fair, held last Saturday at Honeygo Run Regional Park, a small biplane buzzed overhead, the banner behind it reading: "Bengies drive-in is still open."

The fact that the Bengies, a drive-in theater, has to remind the public that it is still there, still projecting movies on the largest outdoor screen on the East Coast, still popping popcorn and grilling hot dogs, hints at its perennial struggles to stay open, and this year is no different.

Bengies, built in 1956 in Middle River, is one of only 400 drive-ins remaining from an era when the country was dotted with more than 4,000 of them, and one of only two such theaters left in the state of Maryland. It is like a member of an endangered species that scientists predict will surely become extinct, only to find it stubbornly surviving, year after year. In 1998, the historic theater closed after what everyone thought was its final season, but to the delight of devoted Bengies-goers, it soon reopened.

So it wasn't surprising when owner D. Edward Vogel again sounded the alert that this season, its 49th, might be Bengies' last. But it looks as though, once again, despite a zoning dispute, the Bengies may have found a way to stay alive.

In true neighborly fashion, Vogel and the Bowleys Quarters Community Association, of which he is a member, have agreed to compromise on the zoning issue by drafting a covenant. A legally binding restriction on land, a covenant takes place outside of the county system, and is agreed upon between a community and a property owner. It's the land-use equivalent of settling out of court: a conclusion reached through mutual negotiations.

Widespread support

Vogel had applied to have the theater's entire 15.38 tract of land re-zoned as "business roadside," the most inclusive of all commercial retail zones, so that he could then put supplementary businesses on the property. This, Vogel said, was needed to generate money to buy the property on which the drive-in sits, which would then ensure its future beyond the 2006 expiration date of its lease.

An outpouring of support in the form of two well-attended public hearings and a massive letter-writing campaign went into the effort to save the local landmark.

Michael Roselle of Brooklyn Park in Anne Arundel County was just one of the many who wrote to the zoning board in support of the Bengies.

Roselle, who has gone to the drive-in since the 1970s and these days comes with his grandchildren, says, "We enjoy the fact that we can go and enjoy some old time Americana. There's not many drive-ins left. I don't think they need another housing subdivision."

But the matter wasn't quite as simple as that. No one in the community wanted to see the drive-in go, but no one wanted to approve the permissive zoning for fear that it might do away with the very institution that Vogel sought to protect.

As Fred Conrad, Zoning Chairman for Bowleys Quarters Improvement Association, says: "Our concern was that if you give 15 acres of retail zoning, you get 15 acres of retail." By withholding approval for complete business zoning, the community hoped to avoid the possibility that Vogel's tract of land could ever be turned into something like a shopping center or car dealership. But without the business zoning, Vogel contended that he could not keep the Bengies open. A compromise was needed, and so the covenant was struck. Though not finalized yet, the covenant would confer the complete business roadside zoning that Vogel seeks, but limit the land's possible uses.

The Bowleys Quarters Improvement Association drew up a list of specific business options for Vogel's undeveloped land. So far they are only suggestions, but the possibilities under discussion include: a second screen for the original drive-in, a two-story indoor theater with two screens, upgrading the snack bar to a restaurant, batting cages, miniature golf, and a cell phone communication tower.

Trying to survive

Vogel says that his preference for the type of new development is simply whatever is best for the drive-in. "Eventually, I'd like an indoor theater, but immediately you have to have a pot of money to build the indoor. I'm hand-to-mouth as it is," he says. "I don't want to jump into something I can't afford or that won't work." So Vogel remains hopeful, but unsure of the future.

"I'm concentrating on just surviving the season," he says. "I know that I've got to get the covenant done and it looks like it's progressing. But I never thought in a million years there would be this many hoops to jump through to save a landmark."

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