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In Highland, community will clashes with code over antique fire trucks

Standing in one of Scott Shearer's barns next to one of his antique fire trucks, a visitor might be forgiven for thinking they've stepped back in time, to an era when the firefighter manning an engine as it sped toward a blaze would sit perched atop a leather seat uncovered from the elements, manually sounding the siren with a heavy metal hand crank.

Shearer, 44, a heavy truck mechanic by trade who owns Hi-Land Farm, in Highland, has a passion for old fire trucks, which he rescues from scrap sales and methodically restores to their former glory.

He has a dozen trucks, including his favorite, an all-white 1954 engine he calls the White Elephant, which he acquired after outbidding a junkyard buyer at a Pennsylvania auction.

Problem is, his farm isn't zoned for the hobby, according to Howard County's Department of Planning and Zoning.

At a total of 13,000 square feet, the four barns on Shearer's property exceed the 2,200-square-foot allowance for accessory structures on a lot that, like his, is zoned rural residential and is larger than 3 acres.

While there is no cap on the size of buildings used for agricultural purposes on rural residential land, storing fire trucks is not considered an agricultural use, per the zoning regulations. Shearer points out that his vehicles alone take up just 2,300 square feet.

For the past eight months, he has been engaged in a back-and-forth with the zoning agency to come to an acceptable solution for both parties. DPZ has given Shearer until June 23 to comply with the code or to apply for variances and a conditional use to make the barns into a museum, a measure that DPZ officials say could allow his barns — and the fire trucks inside those barns — to stay as they are.

From Shearer's perspective, there's no easy solution. Because the barns are built of cinder blocks and cement, there's no way to reduce their size, he says — which means the options are to take them down or leave them standing as-is.

Family farm

Hi-Land Farm has been in his wife's family since 1942, and the barns on the property, which were built in the 1950s, have historic value as the site of what used to be a dairy farm, known internationally for its labor-saving methods.

The farm also has a more recent, less illustrious history. Before Shearer and his wife bought Hi-Land Farm from her family in 2009, a landscape contracting company had been operating out of the site without a permit from 2005 to 2007, according to Shearer. Frustrated community members forced the contractor to apply for a conditional use permit, which he obtained, before deciding to leave the farm altogether.

When Shearer moved in, the old dairy barns were in a state of disrepair. He said he has spent the past five years working to renovate them completely, replacing roofing, framing and painting the barns a crisp white, accented with red doors. Now, he uses two of the barns to house his fire trucks and also runs a small horse and beef cattle operation on the property.

In November 2012, Shearer was awarded a Governor's Volunteer Service Certificate by the state of Maryland for his work, "in appreciation," the certificate states, "of your efforts to ensure the vitality of the community in which you volunteer, your contributions to the citizens of Maryland, and your support of Maryland's long standing tradition of community involvement."

"He's taken something that was a nuisance and created an asset," Dan O'Leary, a neighbor and president of the Greater Highland Community Association, said of Shearer's improvements to Hi-Land.

He has the community in his corner. On a visit to his farm April 28, about a dozen neighbors and friends gathered to talk about Shearer's contributions to Highland.

"He's a good man," George Boarman, who owns Boarman's Meat Market down the street, said of Shearer. "Every single time we've had a snow storm, a blizzard, a derecho… this man stopped by the store and asked if we needed help. He's a very good member of the community; you can't say enough about him as a person."

"The change in the quality of life has been exceptional with the amount of work he's done," said another next-door neighbor, Earl Lauer. "To hear the fire bells ring or the steam whistle [on an antique steam tractor Shearer has restored, and which is not in violation of any codes] blow doesn't bother me in the least. It's kind of nostalgic."

County Council member Greg Fox, a Republican who represents Highland in District 5, visited the site for the first time on May 3 after hearing of Shearer's predicament.

"He's got some pretty cool stuff out there," Fox said. "It's pretty impressive, some of the things he's done."

Complaint-driven approach

Community sentiment, however, can't have a bearing on zoning code, DPZ officials say.

"The law cannot be selectively enforced," Cindy Hamilton, the division chief for zoning administration and public service at DPZ, wrote in an email response to questions for this story. "The sentiments of the community really only become a consideration when the Hearing Authority is evaluating a variance or Conditional Use petition."

Hamilton said that DPZ's policy is not to comment on open zoning enforcement cases. DPZ has a complaint-driven approach to identifying properties that are in violation of the zoning code, but, she said, she couldn't provide any information about who reported Shearer.

"We want to keep the owner's focus on abatement of the violation and not compromise our enforcement efforts," she wrote in the email. "The relevant fact is that a code violation exists, not what individual(s) reported it."

Shearer and his neighbors say they don't know anyone "within a 20-mile radius" who would have a complaint.

"As far as we know, no citizen has complained," O'Leary said.

Shearer said he hopes he and the county can come to a resolution before the June 23 deadline, at which point the county's Hearing Examiner could impose fines, requested by DPZ, ranging from $250 to $500 a day that the property remains in noncompliance.

Two months ago, he applied for a hearing from the Hearing Examiner, but county officials have alerted him that his paperwork is not complete and has several measurement inconsistencies, according to the agency.

A map of the property that Shearer had drawn up for $5,000 does not include the necessary topographical detail, use restriction lines and structure heights on the property required to help the Hearing Examiner make her decision, according to a letter DPZ sent to Shearer, dated April 24.

Shearer says a more detailed map was quoted at $15,000.

Shearer said he's "at the end of my rope." He would like to stay on his property and in the house that he renovated to make it more accessible for Karen, who has multiple sclerosis, but isn't sure whether he wants to sink more money into what he fears could be a losing case.

If he doesn't come to a resolution soon, Shearer said, he might have to move.

"I feel like I'm going to give up … there's no easy way out of this," he said. "It's an exhausting task to move, and I feel like I'm letting everyone down."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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