Paperbacks redefining area adult bookstore

Shop is focus of legal fights, residents' ire

June 30, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

For 11 years, Howard County officials and some residents have fought to close the jurisdiction's only adult bookstore.

They've passed legislation and waged costly legal battles, only to be thwarted time and again.

And now, despite a county law designed to force the Ellicott City store to move away from nearby homes or close, the Pack Shack appears poised to prevail again - maintaining its "Adult Video" sign along a busy stretch of U.S. 40, along with shelves of explicit movies, skimpy lingerie and sex toys.

The store's solution? Filling its basement and other little-used areas with a broad selection of used books that most customers may never see.

"I'm very bitter," said John Baronas, an Ellicott City resident who first protested the store in 1997 and fears that pornography spurs sex crimes. "Why, if [Rudolph W.] Giuliani can clean up Times Square, can't we get rid of an eyesore?"

Allen Harris, senior pastor of Columbia Presbyterian Church, has actively opposed the Pack Shack for years, but had lost track of its legal status.

"They sort of wear people down, continue to grind away," he said. "Pornography is a major destroyer of marriages in Howard County."

Even elected government officials seemed resigned to the outcome.

"It's very disappointing," said state Sen. James N. Robey, a Democrat who was county executive for eight years during the local government's battle with the store.

All that the county government has to show for the long struggle is a receipt for $187,690 in taxpayer money paid to reimburse the Pack Shack's legal costs after the state's highest court ruled in 2003 that the first county zoning law regulating adult bookstores was unconstitutional.

No one in county government knows who controls the store, since no owner is listed in state records. A store clerk identified himself as "Mark" but refused to name the owner during a reporter's recent visit. A "help wanted" sign hangs in the window. Barry Mehta, who owns the building at 8445 Baltimore National Pike, said he merely collects a rent check, and doesn't know the owner.

"I hardly go there at all," he said, adding his refrain for the past decade. "Right now, they have a lease. I'm not thinking of any different plans" for the building. He said the Pack Shack is responsible for maintenance.

Howard J. Schulman, the Baltimore attorney who has represented the store, said there was never a good reason for county government to go after the Pack Shack.

"That store was doing no one any harm," he said. "It's a major highway there. Let the marketplace operate."

The key to the store's reconfiguration lies in the basement. By storing stacks of ordinary used paperback books and other items there and along the first-floor entrance, the 24-hours-a-day operation does not qualify as an adult bookstore under county zoning law.

Using the basement allows the store to rise above the legal criteria that define an adult book or video store as a public store "where at least 20 percent of the stock" is sexual material, and where at "least 20 percent of the total usable floor area" is devoted to sex items.

"They hadn't used the basement before," said Louis P. Ruzzi, the senior assistant county solicitor who has spent years trying to use zoning laws to get the courts to order the store to move or close.

The store isn't in full compliance, Ruzzi said. But if it dedicates about another 30 square feet of floor space to nonsexual items, the shop probably would be legal, pending a reinspection, he said. If it does, the carefully crafted county law would no longer apply.

"It's very typical of the industry to use the law to circumvent the people's will," said Darrell Drown, a former County Council member who helped draft the first law regulating adult bookstores.

The saga began in early 1997 when the Pack Shack opened. By June of that year, the store was attracting demonstrators in the U.S. 40 median.

By year's end, the council passed zoning legislation that barred adults stores within 500 feet of schools, churches, parks or homes. That restricted stores to less than 1 percent of land in the county in a handful of remote locations. Existing businesses had one year to move. Since it was about 165 feet from an apartment complex, Pack Shack's days appeared to be numbered.

But Schulman fought back, contending that the restrictions were so tight that the law was unconstitutional. The Maryland Court of Appeals agreed.

County officials rewrote the law in 2004, decreasing the distance requirement to 300 feet. Last year, a hearing examiner ruled that the store had violated that law because it had not applied for an adult bookstore license, was 165 feet from nearby apartments, and featured video viewing booths with doors that "render them invisible from customers and employees."

The case seemed on a long legal track back to the Court of Appeals - until now.

"It's been our position all along that they were in compliance" with county law, Schulman said. "We're close to having an agreement that we're in compliance."

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