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Zoning regulations close former '17-mile store' WEST COUNTY


A headline in Thursday's Howard County section incorrectly described the status of James Foster's store in West Friendship. Only the gas pumps have been closed at the store.

The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.

Since before the middle of this century, back when cars were supposed to be big, area residents and travelers on the nation's first national highway haven't had to worry about running out of gas in West Friendship.

At least until this year, when county zoning regulations caught up with a small country store (that's "convenience store," in zoning parlance) that serves as the area's only gasoline vendor.

In 1949, at Triadelphia Road and Route 144, Henry Gearhart bought a store with two gas pumps. The place was known as the "17-mile store," because of its distance from downtown Baltimore.

Since then, and for several years before that, the store has been a focal point of the community and a vital wayside stop, first for long-distance travelers, and then for commuters after the opening of Interstate 70.

Last March, Mr. Gearhart's widow, Beulah, sold the store to James Foster, a West Friendship resident.

But the tiles were worn, the fluorescent lights were dirty and the gas pumps were dangerously close to the highway.

"It took me three days to get it up by hand with a scraper," Mr. Foster said of the floor, with its two layers of ancient tile. And that was after getting started with a sledgehammer, he said.

He also wanted to make the gas pumps and tank safer, so he had new ones installed under a new blacktop surface off to the side of the store, a few feet farther from the road.

Unfortunately, he did so "not realizing the comprehensiveness of the Howard County zoning regulations," his lawyer, Thomas Meachum, told the county Planning Board Tuesday.

So despite the fact that Mr. Foster had obtained building permits from the Department of Inspections, Licenses and Permits for the gas pumps, inspectors from the Department of Planning and Zoning responded to a zoning complaint and closed down the gas pumps.

The problem is that even though the 1,150-square-foot store and gas business qualifies as a "non-conforming" use -- one that was around before zoning regulations prohibited it in the still-rural West Friendship area -- Mr. Foster has no documentation to prove it.

Therefore, he must convince the Board of Appeals at a Nov. 12 hearing that the business has operated that long. Mr. Foster also must persuade the board to grant him a variance permitting the gasoline pumps to be 17 feet from the highway's right-of-way, instead of the 60 feet required by zoning regulations.

The Planning Board unanimously agreed to recommend granting Foster's petition, which was also endorsed by the Department of Planning and Zoning.

Mr. Foster said he expects a lot of witnesses to come to the hearing, especially since he has about 1,400 signatures on a petition supporting his business.

"You've got to have a gas station here, or you've got to go all the way up to Sykesville, to Lisbon or all the way up to Ellicott City," said Chauncey Wirsing, of Old Frederick Road, a customer for four or five years who signed the petition.

Donald Dunn, who lives nearby on Triadelphia Road, signed the petition and is planning to testify in favor of keeping the store.

"Here's something that's positive, and he's forced to go through the process. He's lost several months of revenue because of it," said Mr. Dunn, a golf enthusiast who usually testifies about the county's need for golf courses.

I= Mr. Dunn said he thinks the county government needs an ad

ministrative body that can deal with such situations quickly to prevent that kind of loss. "Justice isn't served when it takes too long," he said.

In fact, the Department of Planning and Zoning, in its proposed new zoning regulations, would eliminate the need for Planning Board review and appeals board approval for variances.

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