Local lawmakers Monday night unanimously expanded the Howard County Police Department's powers to crackdown on illegal massage parlors in an effort to curb human trafficking.
The bill, proposed by Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman and County Council Chairman Jon Weinstein, allows local police to complete unannounced checks of massage parlors at any time during business or operating hours to ensure the establishment is licensed by the state.
The county joins Washington and Charles counties, which also have enhanced regulatory powers. Individuals operating illegal massage parlors would be guilty of a misdemeanor, if convicted, and subject to a fine of up to $1,000 or up to six months in prison or both. Establishments must also visibly display state authorization.
In other council action, plans to preserve the Harriet Tubman School as a cultural and educational center also received a green light from the council. The school served as the county's only all-black high school from 1949 through desegregation in the 1960s.
The council approved Kittleman's request to shuffle $3.4 million in already budgeted funds to purchase an office building in Columbia for the school system, which has used the Tubman school for its maintenance and construction departments for more than 30 years.
The $5.2 million purchase of the building, owned by Howard MD Green LLC, would allow the school system to vacate the Harriett Tubman School building so that the county can begin to preserve the school as a relic of African American history.
The council also approved several farming-related measures Monday night.
In an attempt to offer regulatory relief to farmers, the council removed setback requirements that buffer new residences and farmland.
The change would only apply to future residences in the Rural Conservation district, which aims to preserve farmland, as well as farms 20 acres or larger in the Rural Residential district, which allows residential development in rural settings. Current rules require 200-foot setbacks between animal shelters and residences.
The council removed a part of the bill that would have eliminated required buffers of 100 to 200 feet between residences and riding academies and stables. Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty noted it was better to keep existing buffers for riding academies in place because they can often have major impacts on neighborhoods.
Councilman Greg Fox's attempt to table the bill to allow for more careful review failed. In some cases, the bill may go too far and in other cases, not far enough, Fox said.
"I don't think it's as simple as a one-size-fits-all type of thing," he said.
The council also passed a measure to allow specific property owners, who have argued their property rights were limited by the roll-out of a state-mandated requirement that limited development on farmland, to sell their development rights by entering their land into the county's preservation program.
Weinstein said the measure was "long overdue."
In a separate bill, a unanimous vote confirmed the county's purchase of 20.6 acres of farmland in Woodbine for the preservation program.
At the request of Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, the council tabled a measure that would have expanded the authority and responsibilities of the county's transportation office.
The change would streamline upgrades to the county's aging public transit system; expand options for walking, bicycling and driving; and better integrate transportation options with development, according to the administration.
Terrasa said she is working closely with the Kittleman administration to ensure the changes fit the county's vision for transportation.
As currently written, the bill would expand the office's focus from transit to all modes of transportation, including bicycling and walkways for pedestrians. Office staff would also have formal representation on a committee that reviews subdivision and site development plans.
Although the office is already a member of the committee, which includes county and state agencies, the county's code does not officially include the office as a formal member, leaving the office with unequal footing compared to other members.
"There's just a few things left to work out," Terrasa said.