Diluting its 'adult' fare, shop triumphs

Pack Shack doesn't have to close or move, Howard officials say

August 21, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

Howard County's 11-year zoning battle with the Pack Shack adult store is over, and even county officials concede that the store won.

The owners of the store, which peddles books, videos, sex toys and lingerie in Ellicott City, have fought off a series of attempts to force it to move or close.

Outside the run-down building, located on U.S. 40 around the corner from the county government complex, the big free-standing sign announcing "ADULT VIDEO" is visible to the thousands of motorists who daily pass through the county seat.

Inside, a selection of adult fare lines the walls, augmented by viewing booths in the back.

But the battle to force the store to move, which once featured outraged protesters in the median of U.S. 40, ended quietly recently with an official conclusion by inspectors that the store no longer qualifies as an adult video/book store under county law.

"It doesn't meet the definition of an adult store," Assistant County Solicitor Louis P. Ruzzi said after the inspection.

By filling the basement and first-floor entrance with used paperbacks and T-shirts that are not sexually explicit, the store's operators disqualify it under the county's criteria for adult book and video shops.

County laws defines such a store as having at least 20 percent of its stock and 20 percent of its floor space devoted to sexual material.

Stores that meet the definition are required to be more than 300 feet from homes, schools and churches, to disclose ownership and to obtain a county permit.

Meanwhile, another adult book store that has attracted far less attention - Love Craft in North Laurel - has not applied for a permit but hasn't been cited with a zoning violation by county officials.

The message for the anonymous operators of the store is clear, said their attorney, Howard B. Schulman: "It's got the county off its back."

If the law was intended as an attempt at censorship, it failed, Schulman said; and if it was meant to regulate adult stores, the Pack Shack is in compliance.

The names of Pack Shack's owners never have been publicly revealed. A group of 18 adult stores in the Baltimore metro area - including the Pack Shack and Love Craft - are listed together in advertisements in free magazines distributed at the Howard County stores.

County officials and some opponents of Pack Shack were at a loss over the latest chapter in the saga. County Executive Ken Ulman said he wants a review of the situation.

"I'm not happy that we've spent as much money as we have on legal fees, but I want to be very careful moving forward," he said.

Ulman said the county is strongly committed to improving the U.S. 1 corridor and is planning construction of a major regional park and community center in North Laurel, near a year-old, county-owned community service center.

The outcome of the long struggle has left some observers puzzled.

"I still don't quite understand how having a bunch of books in the basement qualifies," said the Rev. Allen Harris, senior pastor of Columbia Presbyterian Church in Ellicott City.

Harris and dozens of his church members campaigned for tighter county regulations when the latest version of the law was passed by the County Council in 2004. An earlier version was ruled unconstitutional by the Maryland Court of Appeals the previous year for being too restrictive.

The county was ordered to pay $187,690 to Pack Shack to cover legal bills for that five-year struggle.

But Harris said he's unsure how to proceed, and he plans to take the matter back to his congregation for discussion on what might be done about the store.

"We have a number of guys in recovery from sexual addiction who may have some interest in this sort of thing," Harris said.

Schulman said the protesters who prompted the county laws are "a small group of anti-pornography zealots who pressure government, [which] exposes their county and fellow taxpayers to potential economic loss."

Council member Jen Terrasa, a Democrat who represents North Laurel, has said she's had no complaints about Love Craft.

"I generally favor free speech and also enforcing laws," she said.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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