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‘No Kennel’: Dog business at historic black schoolhouse in Green Spring Valley sparks Baltimore County backlash

The old stone schoolhouse down a long driveway off Greenspring Valley Road in northwest Baltimore County seemed the perfect spot for Follow My Lead, thought its owners. But neighbors and others consider the business a misfit in the tranquil valley community. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun video)

It took Tiffany Stearns and Mary Frances Dael more than a year to find the secluded property for their dog-training business.

The old stone schoolhouse on three acres down a long driveway off Greenspring Valley Road in northwest Baltimore County seemed perfect, they thought. But neighbors and others are fighting the business, saying it’s a misfit in the tranquil valley community.

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The dispute over how Stearns and Dael are using the property has found its way to the Baltimore County Council, which is set to vote Monday on legislation that would change zoning rules for commercial kennels — defined by county code as any property used to breed, board, sell or train dogs for a fee — in residential areas. Councilman Izzy Patoka’s bill would require such kennels to be at least 200 feet from a residential property line. He wants to make the change retroactive to January, which threatens Stearns and Dael’s business, Follow My Lead

Patoka, a Pikesville Democrat, said he wants to protect neighborhoods from the “inherent adverse effect” of commercial kennels on nearby properties. Stearns told the council last week the legislation would put them out of business.

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Neighbors’ concerns range from traffic, barking and property values to the belief that the business is an inappropriate use for the historic building, which once served the community of Chattolanee, a black enclave northeast of Garrison.

Featuring large windows and arched doorways, the old schoolhouse sits past a wooden bridge that runs over a headwaters stream of the Jones Falls. In recent decades, the 1930s-era property was converted for use as a private residence.

“We were trying to find something unique,” said Stearns, who lives in Guilford. “Something with a place for these dogs to open up into a full gait ... We didn’t want anything mainstream, generic.”

Stearns and her husband purchased the home and surrounding land last June for $750,000, according to state property records. Stearns said she began bringing a few dogs there at a time last year, for which she didn’t need county approval. Eventually, though, she sought a zoning exception to bring more dogs.

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Neighbors said they were caught off guard when they discovered Stearns wanted to use the property as a business, rather than a home.

“Up front, there was never any communication,” said one of them, Bo Jarrett.

“No Kennel” signs sprung up outside homes nearby. Neighbors in the affluent valley got Patoka involved.

Some Greenspring Valley residents have placed "STOP No KENNEL" signs in their yards in response to the dog-training facility Follow My Lead opening in a historic schoolhouse there.
Some Greenspring Valley residents have placed "STOP No KENNEL" signs in their yards in response to the dog-training facility Follow My Lead opening in a historic schoolhouse there. (Ulysses Munoz / Baltimore Sun)

Stearns said she tried to engage neighbors, running into resistance from some but finding support from others.

Having worked with dogs since she was a little girl growing up in Colorado, Stearns said she developed unique training methods that make her business different than a traditional “doggie daycare.” As the zoning case unfolded, a veterinarian and clients wrote to the county on her behalf to praise her approach.

In early March, an administrative law judge granted them permission to use the property as a commercial kennel. Up to 10 dogs are allowed in the fenced-in area outdoors. Up to eight can be kept overnight.

Opponents plan to appeal.

Stearns described her training program as “members-only.” Each dog must be tested to be accepted. A business summary submitted in the case describes the goal as “a free-roaming environment with constant supervision” on the land.

With proper space, Stearns said, dogs are calmer and therefore less likely to bark.

“You’re sitting out here right now with 16 dogs on site, and you can hear the birds,” she told visitors on a recent afternoon.

Critics still don’t like it.

Baltimore County Animal Services' live release rate has improved in recent years – but the county's Animal Services Advisory Commission says those numbers are not what they seem.

“She can dress it up all she wants, but it’s a dog kennel,” said Edward Lee, a 79-year-old Reisterstown resident who attended grade school there in the 1940s. “I just hate to see it be used that way.”

Lee and another former student, Virginia Scott, recalled a tight-knit school where they went home for lunch and then returned for classes. In the evenings, “we could roller skate around the school or play ball in the fields,” said Scott, who still lives across the street.

While the schoolhouse is listed on the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties, it is not designated a county landmark. That means the owners can use it “as they see fit,” so long as legal requirements are met, Administrative Law Judge John E. Beverungen wrote in his decision.

The building was one of six “Rosenwald schools” for African-American children in Baltimore County, said local historian Louis Diggs, who has written extensively on the history of black communities in the county. Philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck and Co., donated money to help build thousands of these schools throughout the South, at the urging of educator Booker T. Washington.

Lee said he believes the business “doesn’t belong in the neighborhood.”

“It’s just out of place,” he said.

The commission's report knocked the county's Animal Services department for a laundry list of alleged failures, including transferring many of its duties to the police.

The preservationist Valleys Planning Council and the nearby Green Spring Valley Hunt Club also oppose the business.

Follow My Lead, meanwhile, hired attorneys from the Venable law firm to lobby on its behalf, according to county lobbying records.

Patoka said the county’s current rules for kennels don’t make sense. Commercial kennels are subject to a 200-foot setback in commercial zones, but there is no setback requirement in residential zones.

He also pointed to a 2001 report by the county planning board, which suggested a 500-foot setback for commercial kennels in rural areas — a suggestion that was never put into law.

The councilman’s proposal faces resistance on the council, particularly from Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, who said last week she won’t support making the legislation retroactive to January, as Patoka wants to do.

She said the government shouldn’t change the rules for a business that already received county approvals.

“It’s pulling the rug out from underneath of a business that has been granted permission from the county to do exactly what they’re doing,” said Bevins, a Middle River Democrat.

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