Howard pet grooming business wins zoning change after two-year push

Howard pet grooming business wins zoning change after two-year push
Dale Martins with some of her Norwich terriers at her pet grooming shop behind her home in Laurel. Her business is currently closed while she petitions the county for a zoning change to operate legally. (Jen Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Since the late 1980s, Dale Martins has run a small pet grooming business, which includes specialty services like hand stripping terriers by removing dead hairs off their coats and grooming cats and show dogs.

The future of her business, which began on Gorman Road and later moved to Harding Road in North Laurel nearly a decade ago, hinged on a technicality: Her property is 0.0091 acres short of the one acre required to operate a legal in-house pet grooming business in Howard County.


The couple had sought a change in the zoning meticulously designed to keep their business open: a minimum lot size of 40,000 square feet — or 0.92 acres — instead of one acre. Satisfaction finally came Monday night when the Howard County Council unanimously approved the change. The couple will now apply for a conditional use.

The zoning issue began when a neighbor called and complained about dogs barking, revealing the business was not allowed on a property too small for a pet grooming establishment, according to county records.

Dale and her husband, Timothy, petitioned the county in August last year to change the county's zoning regulations by decreasing the minimum lot size for in-house pet grooming establishments from one acre to 0.5 acres.

But the proposal hit a wall early in the process.

In November, the zoning department's staff recommended denying the change because it could open up opportunities for pet grooming businesses on nearly 7,000 lots. The planning board unanimously denied the petition in February, adding not all pet grooming business would be "run as well as the Martins."

"It is the epitome of bureaucratic stupidity," said Melissa Jones, a 45-year-old Ellicott City who has used Martin's services for eight years. "I understand there are rules but common sense has to come into play here."

"This business is just me," said Dale Martins, who has bred champion show dogs and began grooming for other people's pets in the late 1970s. "I grew up with animals. I love animals. I love breeding and showing."

Valdis Lazdins, the director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, backed the change in late March, citing the proposal provides adequate buffering without disturbing the character of neighborhoods.

Jones said Martins was the only groomer who could understand her foster dog, a German shepherd Rottweiler mix who had been heavily abused.

"I had to find someone to get him to learn to trust people again. Dale did that. She understood he was scared. She did everything she could to make him comfortable. I would have trusted no other person to handle him," Jones said.

Martins, who often works with dogs from the police department and offers pro bono services for local rescue groups, has been grooming dogs since the late 1970s. Her business, which began on Gorman Road in Laurel, has developed a dedicated clientele that she calls family. Clients from as far as Virginia wrote dozens of letters of support to the Council.

Every work day is different, a lifestyle she said helps her tackle her attention deficit disorder, or ADD. "I do all breeds and a lot of specialty. It's not always the same thing. I'm not sitting at a desk or a computer. It would make me mental to do that."

As her zoning petition navigated the county's process, Martins worked with her dogs and volunteered her services for free opportunities.

"I always thought I had an acre of land," Martins said, who grew up on a farm in Montgomery County. "I didn't know you needed a conditional use."


Steve Corbett, a Laurel resident who has used the pet grooming business for almost four years, said Martins has a special knack for grooming and stripping show dogs.

"She's a craftsman, a true expert in her trade. I want [my dogs'] cut to look like they look in the books. She does exactly that." said Corbett.

Sharie Smith, a 67-year-old Burtonsville resident, said Dale treated her 2-year-old dog like he was one of her own.

"You'd think they'd be after a whole lot more than a small pet grooming business," said Smith. "She's a very good person who is just trying to make a living."

Corbett agreed. "[This process] is simply horrible. She's trying to do things on her own. She's not bothering anybody. She's not going to cut corners."

The changes would apply to a residential district zoned for single-family units on two units per acre.