The Friendly Inn's neighbors have lost another round in their quest to stop the Ellicott City tavern from building an outdoor patio, though the yearlong struggle may be far from over.
The bar and restaurant, known in recent years as a gathering place for blues music, has been an outpost on once-rural Frederick Road at Folly Quarter Road since before Howard County adopted zoning in 1948, but newcomers who bought new retirement homes around it say the patio would change the neighborhood they've come to love.
But in a 12-page decision issued Tuesday, the county Board of Appeals upheld a September decision by the county hearing examiner approving the outdoor patio and roof, as long as operators Jason Cooke and Steven R. Iampieri install a 3-foot-high fence or planters to conceal it and do not allow music outdoors.
"We are happy with the decision," Cooke said.
But if the owners build the patio with 50 to 60 seats, they would also have to enlarge and upgrade the tavern's restrooms, a significant added expense. They could opt to build a larger restaurant deeper in the narrow site and then demolish the old building, he said.
"We're at a point of re-evaluating reinvesting in the Friendly Inn as it is," Cooke said.
Technically, the case is about a zoning variance to allow the 1,228-square-foot covered patio to sit within six feet of the property line instead of the required 30 feet. The restaurant's owners contended that because the site is narrow and the existing building is just six feet from the line, the patio would fit in without harm.
But buyers who began moving into the upscale Ellicott Meadows retirement community on a hill behind the restaurant and other new homes to the east during the past decade say the patio would bring an increase in noise, trash, public drunkenness and traffic. They fear that a future redevelopment plan could transform the site into a small shopping center.
"It is clear we do not want the Friendly Inn to expand," said Charles Christian, who said he moved to a retirement home in November 2008 with the understanding that the restaurant would not change. "We as residents of Ellicott Meadows are very disappointed" with the decision, he said, though they are not sure whether they will appeal in circuit court.
The residents' attorney, Katherine L. Taylor, said the county Board of Appeals "did not follow long-established Maryland precedent for the granting of variances."
However, the decision laid out specific criteria in the law that the board felt the restaurant's owners had satisfied.
At the board hearings in March and April, resident Susan Boyd testified that the patio would change the character of the neighborhood because of added noise and light. Patrick Smith, an Ellicott Meadows resident who sells real estate, said it would be difficult to sell the remaining lots in the development if the restaurant expands, and Philip Fass said he had seen a bar patron urinate on the property.
But the Board of Appeals declined to block the requested changes.
"The board concludes that the narrow width of the property is a unique physical condition," a requirement for the setback waiver, and continues "a long-established use." The board said the patio would not alter the character of the neighborhood, would not be nearer the residences than the existing building, built about 1939 on 1.87 acres, and "will not be detrimental to the public welfare."
The restaurant's operators still need permission from the county liquor board to serve alcohol outside the building.