Erroneous information in the city zoning office's computer files has locked two mom-and-pop grocery stores in West Baltimore in a battle for profits and, maybe, survival.
Charles J. Purnell, owner of the Last Stop Confectionery on Fremont Avenue near Fayette Street, complains that the erroneous information allowed the competing Poppleton Food Market to open at a location that is not zoned for business but is more convenient to residents of the Lexington Terrace public housing complex.
The new store siphoned away business, and he is having problems paying his bills, said Mr. Purnell, 34. "My business is cut almost down to zero," he said, adding that he opened the store in 1984 only after being assured by officials that zoning restrictions prohibited competitors from opening in a location closer to customers' homes than his store.
The existence of his competitor, who invested thousands of dollars to convert a vacant house into a food market, is also threatened now that zoning officials are aware of the problem.
Domingo H. Kim opened his store on Lexington Street in May. He was given the incorrect information in 1992.
Records show that the building is zoned residential, meaning that a grocery store cannot exist there.
But Mr. Kim was already in business when city officials discovered the error. The city now says that the store cannot remain open unless it is granted a special exception by the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals, to which Mr. Kim has appealed. His store is being allowed to remain open until the issue is decided.
Zoning administrator David C. Tanner said that the mistake was made when someone in his office, or in another agency with access to the computer, entered information showing the property as being zoned commercial.
E9 He said he's never before encountered such a problem.
'There was a mistake'
"Basically, there was a mistake made," said Mr. Tanner, who insisted that the problem cannot happen again.
"I'm going through a series of spot checks," he said. "Until we are certain the information is correct, I've instructed our staff not to rely on information they see on the computer screen."
Mr. Tanner said employees are required to match computer data against zoning maps.
Mr. Kim said that he has spent $40,000 to renovate the building, including replacing the facade and installing Plexiglas windows and turnstiles.
He said he owned another store in Baltimore but closed it to open the Poppleton Food Market.
"Whatever the zoning board says, I'll have to follow," he said.
Mr. Kim said he is not bitter that his business is in danger but believes he should be allowed to stay open because of the size of his investment.
In his appeal, he said he relied upon incorrect information from the zoning office and did extensive renovation. His application says that "extreme hardship" will result if he is forced to close.
'I feel sorry for him'
Mr. Kim, 30, said that the community benefits from his store's presence because of its convenience and efforts he's made to improve the area.
He said the site was an eyesore crawling with rats before he moved there. He said he is optimistic that things will work out for both him and Mr. Purnell, although the latter says it's impossible for both to thrive.
"I feel sorry for him. I didn't want to hurt anybody," Mr. Kim said.
Mr. Purnell says that the Poppleton Food Market should be closed because it operates in a location that never has been zoned for business. He pointed to city records showing that in 1950 a request was denied to operate a grocery store in the Lexington Street building.
He said he doesn't have any problems with two stores down the street from him because they are in areas zoned for business.
Mr. Purnell said his Last Stop Confectionery once had $800 a day in sales before public housing officials closed down a high-rise building at Lexington Terrace. He said he then was grossing about $600 a day before the Poppleton Food Market opened. His daily gross sales are now down to about $300, he said.
Mr. Purnell said he's also learned a hard lesson -- that many of his former customers value convenience more than loyalty.
"It's my livelihood here," said the father of four. "A lot of my customers have moved. A lot of elderly people, they don't come down here any more. . . . The way my business is going, I'm DTC going to have to shut down, and there will be another vacant building in the neighborhood."