Friendly Inn Fights To Grow

Some Object To New Mural And To Plans For Patio Dining

August 09, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

The Friendly Inn on Frederick Road in Howard County has been a rustic attraction since before zoning came to the increasingly suburban area, but the new owners of the bluegrass music bar have irked some newer "55 and better" residents of nearby age-restricted housing.

Even its boosters agree that the Friendly doesn't fit the new upscale neighborhood image.

"It was a pretty dilapidated, rough, tough place," said Jeff Marsh, an area resident who supports owner Jason Cooke's bid to draw more seasonal business with a small outdoor patio. He said Cooke's repainting, repairs and cleaning are a vast improvement, though others didn't agree.

The seeds for a clash were sown five years ago, when construction of the Ellicott Meadows senior condominium community began on a hillside in back of the old inn, separated by a large stormwater retention pond. Later, two dozen detached homes were built just to the inn's east.

FOR THE RECORD - In a Howard County section article published last Sunday about an attempt to obtain a zoning setback variance to allow an outdoor patio at the Friendly Inn, a comment by hearing examiner Michele LeFaivre was incorrectly reported. Zoning variances do not run with the land or set precedents.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

The newer residents view the western Ellicott City inn as a throwback that some feel may be threatening their sleep and peace of mind - and their already-slumping property values. A proposal to add outdoor seating on a 1,128-square-foot concrete patio behind the bar and an adjoining snowball stand moved dozens to protest at a hearing Monday. They said they fear more night noise from music, outdoor drinkers and the occasional motorcycle.

"Motorcycles make a lot of noise when they take off," said Evan Evans, who said he wants to protect his $400,000 investment in his new house. Hearing examiner Michele L. LeFaivre said that the setback variance being requested would not affect motorcycles. "Jay Leno could move next door to you and bring 13 motorcycles with him," she said.

About 35 Ellicott Meadows residents protested the requested variance.

Cooke also needs permission from the county's liquor board. County planners have recommended approving the variance, though LeFaivre said she's not sure county zoning has any provision for outdoor restaurant seating other than in Columbia or other designated locations.

Ellicott Meadows resident Kathy Fisher suggested the inn be renovated into an upscale wine bar like the Iron Bridge on Route 108. "They could put in a beautiful garden," she said, wondering how the old bar fits into Howard County's green program. Others tried a more technical approach.

"I believe the variance would alter the essential character of the neighborhood," said Sari Bennett, an Ellicott Meadows resident. "We selected our retirement homes because of the serenity and the beauty of the area," she said, including the wildlife she and her neighbors see in and around the stormwater pond next to the inn.

Russ DiPane, another Ellicott Meadows resident, said the new mural painted on the inn's front roof particularly bothers him.

"It's something Peter Max would have done on an acid trip. Aesthetically, it's not real appealing," he said. Others said they fear the patio is just a pretense for some larger redevelopment on the 1.87 acres, but LeFaivre said variances run with the land or set zoning precedents. Under the current business zoning, Cooke could theoretically run anything from a funeral home to an adult bookstore on the site.

"These people have worked hard all their lives and just want to enjoy the peace and quiet," said resident George Golomb.

The Friendly has been around under various names since 1937, when Howard County was all farmland and home to fewer than 20,000 residents, compared with the roughly 275,000 current population.

According to a county planning report on the place, it sits on a 150-foot-wide strip of land. The entrance is "undefined" by a driveway or curb and the "somewhat undefined" parking lot is a mixture of gravel, packed earth and lawn." The original building has had some additions over the years and it doesn't exactly meet modern county setback standards, which didn't exist when it was built.

Until 2008, it was run for 29 years by a German immigrant named Gisela Woelper, who now operates a consignment shop in Carroll County.

Woelper built it into a combination rural watering hole and weekend destination for local bluegrass musicians.

Cooke and his attorney said the old building already intrudes as far into the county's modern 30-foot setback from the edge of the property as the patio would, and he's placed it as far from the surrounding homes as he could.

Christopher Merdon, a former County Council member who lives across Frederick Road, supported Cooke, arguing that setback regulations were created to protect homes very close to other properties. The Friendly, he noted, is hundreds of feet away from the nearest homes.

"I don't think it adversely affects the neighbors," he said.

LeFaivre said she would issue a written decision within 30 days.

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