The Anne Arundel County Council on Tuesday night further curbed a controversial proposal aimed at cracking down on commercial properties where crime frequently occurs, narrowing the measure to apply only to hotels of a certain size.
County Executive Steve Schuh's administration, which has opposed the bill from the start, again expressed concerns about the measure and questioned the legality of the restricting amendment.
Under Bill 87-16, introduced by Councilman Andrew Pruski, D-Gambrills, businesses with 10 or more "nuisance" arrests could be issued a public nuisance notice by police, a move that would open the door for the county to temporarily shutter the businesses until the issues are addressed.
The measure has faced sustained opposition from Schuh's administration and some council members, who have expressed concerns that some of the county's large businesses, including Maryland Live casino and the malls, could be shut down as a result.
An amendment proposed by Councilman Pete Smith, D-District 1, and approved by the council on Tuesday limits the measure to apply only to hotels with 200 units or fewer.
Smith said it would narrow the scope of the bill and give the council a way to gauge the measure's effectiveness. It was similar to an amendment proposed by Pruski and unanimously approved earlier in the night that would have limited the legislation to all hotels in the county.
County Attorney Nancy Duden warned applying the measure to certain hotels and not others, as Smith's amendment does, is "unconstitutional."
"This amendment arbitrarily and capriciously draws a line in the sand at 200 rooms or less," Duden said. "Why? What data is that based upon?"
The bill has undergone a number of changes since Pruski introduced it in November in an attempt to address the concerns of Laurel residents who have long complained of reoccurring crime, including prostitution and drug dealing, at hotels along the Route 198 corridor.
The bill would enable the county police chief to give a public nuisance notice to a business with 10 "nuisance" arrests on their property — a definition that includes prostitution, lewdness, human trafficking, drug possession and dealing, illegal gambling, storing stolen property and unregistered firearms, crimes of violence, and gang activity, among other charges.
If a county panel then ruled that a public nuisance exists, the business could be temporarily shut down until its problems are fixed.
At the last council meeting on Jan. 3, the council passed a series of amendments restricting parts of the bill, including establishing a three-person panel to determine whether a public nuisance exists, instead of leaving the decision to the police chief alone. The amendments also created safeguards meant to protect business owners who feel they have been unfairly accused, including allowing businesses to remain open if they choose to pursue an appeal.
The measure was also amended Tuesday to require the panel give its reasons for issuing or not issuing an order of abatement in writing, and to change the language in a section explaining which crimes qualify as "nuisance" crimes.
The council will take up the measure again at its next meeting, scheduled for Feb. 6.
Also on Tuesday, council members approved legislation altering a benefits program for volunteer firefighters.
The program, known as Length of Service Award Program, or LOSAP, offers monthly payments to volunteer firefighters in Anne Arundel County and the City of Annapolis who are at least 50 years old and have completed at least 25 years of active service.
The legislation increases payments for volunteers who stay active after reaching the program's milestones. But it also adds a requirement limiting who is eligible for the benefits program. Under the change, only volunteers who are part of an "active company," defined as one that responds to at least 5 percent of a station's emergency calls annually, could accrue LOSAP service points.
The council approved several changes to the bill at the last meeting, including establishing a three-year grace period to allow "inactive" stations time to become active under the guidelines and be eligible to receive the program's benefits.
Local firefighters were split on the measure, and members from different sides voiced their opinions at County Council meetings this month.
Other action taken by the council on Tuesday included:
•Holding over legislation that would change the county's policy on cluster developments
•Amending a proposal to impose penalties on people who dump yard waste or trash down county storm drains or waterways
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•Passing a measure establishing the Venice Beach Shore Erosion Control District