Mechanic wins battle on zoning Car repair work to be allowed


John Baker has been repairing things for three decades at his home in Ellicott City's historic district.

But it wasn't until last week that he won a six-year battle to convince county authorities the work he did behind his 1910 colonial home on Old Columbia Pike was legal.

Unlike other tinkerers in town, Mr. Baker doesn't work on watches, jewelry or hobby-horses. He fixes cars.

In 1986, a anonymous complaint prompted county authorities to find Mr. Baker's business in violation of his property's historic residential zoning. The case went to court that year, and Mr. Baker received a court order prohibiting him from "illegally operating" his backyard repair business.

Last spring, following an inspection that revealed more than 20 cars on his asphalt parking area, Mr. Baker was again summoned to court and fined $500 for being in contempt of the previous order.

"I'm going to be 56 in January. Where the hell [am I] going to get a job now?" Mr. Baker said.

At his county Board of Appeals hearing Sept. 24, he testified, "I just never understood that I was supposed to stop working on cars" when the court order was issued. The problem, as he saw it, was that the county didn't want him to store cars under repair.

After about 50 of Mr. Baker's neighbors and customers showed up to support him, the board decided last week to allow Mr. Baker to continue fixing cars.

In technical zoning parlance, the business he started in 1961 was classified as a "non-conforming use" -- meaning repairing cars was a "customary home occupation" before 1977 zoning regulations made it illegal to run a car repair shop in a residential area.

The year Baker's Garage opened, a pair of black 1961 Cadillac Fleetwoods rolled off the assembly line, destined for a healthy retirement among several classic cars Mr. Baker has rescued from oblivion.

An eggshell-white 1932 Model B Ford Coupe with a 1949 Mercury engine and a gray-primer 1948 Willys Jeep Overland sit inside his makeshift garages with canvas-tarp doors -- leaving only one roof under which to work on his customers' cars.

But while it probably drew the attention of county zoning inspectors, it's not a problem for Mr. Baker, who his wife Marietta describes as a "shade-tree mechanic."

There was a need for shade in the afternoon sun last Friday, as his clients dropped by to congratulate him on winning his administrative battle with an unknown adversary.

"I have a problem with the fact that someone can accuse someone like this and not have to appear here," testified Frank Collins at the appeals board hearing. Mr. Baker was not privy to the origin of the complaint that almost forced him out of business.

Mr. Collins and other customers delivered crucial testimony to fill in gaps in his history that Mr. Baker could not document.

To gain the non-conforming use declaration, he and lawyer Timothy J. McCrone had to prove that the business had operated continuously since 1961, and that auto repair was a customary home occupation at the time.

"Johnny has repaired my trucks and tractors, cars and farm equipment for 30 some years," Mr. Collins said.

"I could list 12 or 15 people who worked at home," he added, including auto mechanics and blacksmiths.

Mr. Baker testified that he never thought his business to be in violation of zoning because one of the county's zoning inspectors, now dead, brought his cars to him for repairs in the 1960s.

Also important was the testimony of his next-door neighbor, Paul Matthaei, who won the 1992 Historical Preservation Award for Ellicott City.

"The Bakers have been exemplary neighbors," he told the board. "I can't see why the county would have any objections."

Mrs. Baker said she spent two days on the telephone thanking people for their support, and Mr. Baker said he was grateful to have so much help solving the problem.

One customer and friend, Clifford Bobo, told the board that it would be "a sad situation" if Mr. Baker were put out of business and his family was left without income.

"He and Marietta are as close to American Gothic, like the people you see on the Corn Flakes boxes, as you'll ever meet," he said.

Mr. Bobo also said he found it odd that those the county pays people to enforce zoning in such cases and also pays people to promote economic development.

"It's Kafkaesque that Howard County has a group of people that are trying to locate businesses in Howard County . . . and Howard County has a group of people that are in the business of putting people like Johnny out of business," Mr. Bobo said.

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