Small businesses annoyed with county

Overzealous inspectors, inconsistent policies, red tape among complaints

August 03, 2008|By Karen Shih | Karen Shih,Sun reporter

David Rosage wanted to add tropical flair to his snowball stand in Riviera Beach: cut-out, colorfully painted plywood palm trees.

He figured they would perk up his roadside stand, but Anne Arundel County inspectors ordered him to remove them and a community bulletin board that they said violated sign laws.

He was charged $2,000 for that and additional problems with his parking lot that houses his two stands - the other sells hot dogs - and had to complete what he called "a crazy laundry list of things to do," including installing poles on Mountain Road to mark the entrance and exit.

"Obviously, it takes more than one sign to have a small business," he said. "It's very difficult to operate a small business in the county."

He was among more than 250 people who turned out at a July 24 meeting to vent their grievances about what they called inconsistent policies, overzealous inspectors and too much red tape in the Department of Inspection and Permits - and about community members who filed anonymous complaints against them.

"We were just hearing a lot of complaints regarding getting permits and getting their businesses opened," said Jim Anderson, president of the Pasadena Business Association, which organized the meeting with the Northern Anne Arundel County and Greater Severna Park chambers of commerce. "When you're trying to open a business, a delay will cause business owners money."

Several residents complained about what they saw as their neighbors' violations, including a garage that was converted to an automobile repair shop. One resident said the department kept changing policies, forcing him to spend an extra $67,000.

With a compilation of complaints in hand, Anderson and his colleagues plan to form a task force to work with the county to create a smoother process for businesses to secure permits and pass inspections.

Fran Schmidt, executive director of the Northern Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce, stressed that the intent was to work with the county, not against it.

"They've all indicated that they'd be willing to work with us," she said, referring to county officials who attended the event, including representatives from the offices of County Executive John R. Leopold, Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr. of Pasadena and Council Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale of Severna Park.

Though they were invited to attend, they were not allowed to speak. It was designed to be a forum for residents and businesses, not a chance to "hear justifications for the problem," Schmidt said.

Dels. Donald H. Dwyer Jr. of Glen Burnie and Steve Schuh of Pasadena also attended the meeting, but officials from the Department of Inspections and Permits and the Office of Planning and Zoning were not invited.

At this point, "we haven't heard anything" about the complaints, said Tracie Reynolds, spokeswoman for both agencies.

"Nobody has approached us to have a meeting to address any concerns," she said. "We'd be open to discussing any concerns they would have."

Another key problem was about complaints from the community.

"Until they get an anonymous complaint, they don't do anything," Rosage said. Then "the floodgates open up on you."

Most businesses just wanted a smoother process. They said they didn't have axes to grind but just want change.

Several business owners contacted by The Sun asked not to be identified, for fear of reprisals. One landscaper said that though he has seen the inconsistency in regulations firsthand, his business depends on the cooperation of people in the permitting office.

Mike McLaughlin, who opened three Five Guys Burgers and Fries franchises in the past two years in Pasadena, Glen Burnie and Hanover, said that "there is a lack of consistency from store to store, in terms of how the code is interpreted and enforced."

Opening a business in the county means "walking on eggshells," he said.

McLaughlin's suggestions for better relations between the county and businesses included giving businesses scheduled inspection times and enforcing more timely notification of violations, so that businesses don't have to wait until the last minute to take care of problems. Anderson said some people wanted a citizens oversight committee to check on permit inspectors.

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