Balto. Co. Council OKs in-law apartment, roadside stand bills

The Baltimore County Council unanimously adopted rules Tuesday for "accessory apartments" in single-family homes and revised the definition of a "farmer's roadside stand" — two votes that may resolve a couple of long-standing neighborhood disputes.

The bill for single-family homeowners who want to add an apartment in their house or in a smaller building on their property limits such apartments to relatives of the homeowners and sets standards for size and separate utility meters. Its sponsors argued that those are the rules that have been followed for years, and the legislation simply puts them on the books.

The measure passed by a 7-0 vote without an amendment proposed by opponents of the bill that would have allowed homeowners to provide such apartments only for members of their immediate family who are either elderly or disabled. The bill was amended to bar homeowners from charging rent, and to require them to get a another permit for a new tenant if the occupant named in the existing permit moves out.

The vote may solve a problem for a Cockeysville family who recently lost their case in the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which ruled that the garage apartment they built for their adult son in 2007 was a violation of zoning code. J. Gary and Barbara Mueller still have the right to appeal the decision to the Maryland Court of Appeals, but if the ruling stands, the county could force them to knock the garage down.

Arnold Jablon, director of the Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspections, said last week that if the apartments legislation were to pass, it appears to settle the problem, meaning the Muellers' garage could stay.

Opponents, including organizations such as the Falls Road Community Association and North County Preservation, said they feared the bill could potentially allow neighborhoods to become much more densely populated than zoning rules now allow. Some critics wondered how code inspectors would keep up with enforcing the new rules.

The council's decision to revise the county code's definition of "farmer's roadside stand" could end a dispute that has been going on in the northern part of the county since 2007, when David and Lilly Smith, owners of Springfield Farm in Sparks proposed building a barn to house a retail stand where they planned to sell meat, eggs and dairy products raised and their farm and elsewhere.

They've been opposed along the way by neighbors who believe that the Smiths' are really planning a "distribution center" in the guise of a "roadside stand," from which they would act chiefly as purveyors of products they do not raise themselves. They argued that such an operation would bring traffic that did not suit the rural character of the area. County rules on such stands say the farmer's own products must make up at least half of their sales, and the stand must be housed in an "accessory structure," usually defined as smaller than the main farm house.

The case went to Circuit Court, where this summer a judge rejected the Smiths' argument that their plan for a barn that was larger than their house qualified as "accessory," as the retail stand itself would only occupy one floor of the barn. The judge ruled that one floor in the proposed barn could not be considered a "structure."

The revision adopted by 7-0 vote Tuesday night appears to remove that obstacle, as it adds the words "a barn or other farm building or portion thereof" to the definition of "farmer's roadside stand."

Last week the lawyer for the Smiths said he could not say what the legislation would mean for his clients, but the lawyer for opponent, Michael McCann, said the bill appeared to allow the Smiths to carry out their plans.

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