A sign of the old days

U.S. 1 envisioned minus adult store

August 14, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

The large signs adorning the Love Craft adult video store in the median of U.S. 1 in North Laurel make its contents very clear.

One says "Adult Store" in big letters, while others warn people younger than age 18 to stay out. Still others advertise videos, lingerie and private viewing booths inside.

The sales clerk is a mild-mannered man who said his name is Paul but declined to give his last name or comment on who owns the place during a recent visit by a reporter. The business is one of 18 similar stores in the Baltimore metropolitan area advertised as a group in a free magazine available at the stores. Nine go by the same name as the Laurel shop.

Located in a small strip center that also includes a pawn shop, massage parlor and pizza store once patronized by several of the 9/11 hijackers, Love Craft is an example of what Howard County officials say they want to disappear along a stretch of the U.S. 1 corridor that is undergoing redevelopment.

The shopping center was spotlighted in a 2001 citizens task force report on revitalization as an example of the corridor's "negative image."

For a decade, Howard officials fought an unsuccessful legal battle to displace a similar store called the Pack Shack on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City.

Yet Love Craft's owners face no zoning violations or other county government sanctions even though the store appears to violate multiple provisions of a 2004 county zoning law regulating adult book and video operations.

"We have not had a complaint for the North Laurel operation and therefore no action is anticipated at this time," Marsha S. McLaughlin, the county planning director, wrote in an e-mail, explaining that enforcement is complaint-driven because of limited resources.

Tom Flynn, former president of the now-defunct North Laurel Civic Association, said he knows of no community consternation about the store and is not upset himself.

But some residents say they suspect the seemingly different treatment reflects the traditional view of North Laurel as a lower-status community when compared with Ellicott City. Area residents have complained to county officials in years past, according to Donna Thewes, a former community-police liaison and activist, but they were rebuffed.

"We got blown off, lectured to, talked down to," she said.

Thewes said the officials' typical response to resident complaints was: "What do you expect when you live in North Laurel?"

John Baronas, an Ellicott City resident who has protested the Pack Shack, said the county "should enforce the laws" uniformly in every community. But he also said the southern end of the U.S. 1 corridor is "like a different area."

Over the years, county police have made occasional prostitution and drug arrests along the southern end of the corridor, an area marked by low-end motels, vehicle and boat dealers, and the entrance to Laurel Park race track.

County law requires adult video stores to disclose their ownership and apply for a permit, but the Love Craft has done neither, county officials say. Such stores also must be more than 300 feet from the nearest residential area, but Love Craft sits less than 200 feet from a new four-story, mixed-use Ashbury Court apartment building that replaced an old trailer park and represents county officials' vision of the "new" U.S. 1.

The store also appears to be in violation of a provision that prohibits video viewing booths from having curtains or doors that conceal the booth's interior, as well as a requirement that all areas of the store open to customers be visible by employees and customers.

Pack Shack and the Laurel Love Craft store are among the 18 stores advertised as a group in a free magazine called "XTREME" distributed at the stores.

Ownership of the stores remains murky. County officials said they have never learned who owns either business. State business records don't include ownership information. Barry Mehta, who owns the building the Pack Shack occupies, claims he does not know who pays the rent. The Laurel Square center is owned by MH Properties LLC, according to state tax records, which has its headquarters at a Woodlawn office park. The firm's resident agent is Morris Helman, chairman of Bill's Carpet Fair, records show. Helman has not returned a reporter's calls.

Love Craft's owners may have benefited from the county's long, frustrating battle against the Pack Shack store.

In 1997, outraged residents marched in protest after Pack Shack's opening, prompting the County Council to pass a law restricting the locations for such stores. In 2003, after several years of legal wrangling, the Maryland Court of Appeals declared the law so restrictive as to be unconstitutional, and the county had to pay $187,690 in Pack Shack legal costs.

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