Before the Carroll commissioners approve a recommendation to change county zoning laws to allow catering at country inns, they ought to consider carefully the rationale for such a decision. In doing a favor for a local innkeeper, the commissioners could end up unraveling the zoning code.
Michael Gross, the owner of Bowling Brook Country Inn, would like the zoning code amended so he can cater parties and events at his Middleburg country inn. At first glance, his seems like a reasonable request. Allowing catering at quaint hostelries such as Mr. Gross' could certainly provide a needed boost to the county's tourist and hospitality industry, whose potential is underrealized considering Carroll's location so near Civil War sites, Baltimore and the nation's capital.
Under the current zoning code, some Carroll inns are hosting catered events -- wedding receptions and cocktail parties -- as an accessory, or incidental, use. Technically, they are violating the current zoning code that says inns can only prepare food for overnight guests. The issue is not the preparation of the food itself, but which customers can consume that food. Mr. Gross and other inn keepers would like permission to serve food to people other than overnight guests.
One problem with the proposed change is this: Under the current zoning code, country inns are conditional uses permitted in virtually any residential zone. The commission has to ask itself: Is a catering operation that stages events that can attract hundreds of guests and dozens of cars weekend after weekend a compatible use in a residential zone?
The proposed amendment flies in the face of Carroll's zoning code that intentionally limits certain business and industrial uses of the land to specific zones. Under the current code, catering facilities must be located in business zones.
Catering is a business. So is running a country inn. But a country inn with a small number of guest rooms does not generate the traffic, noise or disruption associated with most catering halls.
If the commission decides to allow catering at country inns, it has to rethink the zones where country inns can be located. No one would want to have a hotel or motel that hosts large parties next to their home. Allowing country inns to host large catered events might produce exactly that.